Evaluating a Citizen Science Approach to Tick Surveillance & Exposure Risk - TribPapers

Evaluating a Citizen Science Approach to Tick Surveillance & Exposure Risk

Don't throw away attached ticks. NCSU wants them. NCSU ad.

Asheville – Dayvion Adams, a Ph.D. student at NCSU, has undertaken a study entitled “Evaluating a Citizen Science Approach to Tick Surveillance and Exposure Risk in North Carolina.” An entomologist, Adams won a TriCEM award a couple of years ago for work showing increases and decreases in incidences of tick-borne diseases can be correlated with the migration of the tick species that carry those diseases.

The Importance of Citizen Science

Citizen science, otherwise known as community science or even crowd science, isn’t anything new. Laypeople were collecting water samples from the French Broad decades ago. Whereas the concept of trained Ph.D.s carefully adhering to the rigors of the scientific method is intellectually satisfying, citizen science makes much more sense when trying to figure out which ticks are biting where. NCSU is partnering with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Branch and, through them, Buncombe County Public Health for the citizen science part of the program.

The Hyperlocal Angle

The hyperlocal angle is a tad peculiar. Whereas official instructions from NCSU state, “Participants will only submit ticks pulled off of themselves,” Buncombe County Public Health’s announcement of their partnership can be misleading, as it states, “Participants … would be required to collect ticks.” Suffice it to say, public health officials are not cooperating in this study to encourage people to lure infectious ticks to bite them. NCSU is not going to pay people for their ticks anyway.

Participating and Tick Collection

Persons expecting to get ticks on them can order one or more kits by emailing dradams4@ncsu.edu, or they may stop by the Buncombe County Health offices at 30 Valley Street in Asheville. Each kit comes with two collection tubes and preserving fluid. NCSU’s website TickCheck.com provides information on how to remove ticks. Sharp tweezers are the go-to tool, but NCSU also sells a Premium Steel Tick Removal Kit for $12.95 on Amazon. Each pack contains a stainless tick removal tool and super-fine-tip tweezers and comes with a leatherette pouch and a tick identification card. A wallet-sized tick removal card is also available.

Attached or implanted ticks are to be grabbed as close to the head as possible and pulled straight out without squeezing, jerking, or twisting. Contrary to folk traditions, ticks are not to be covered in Vaseline, soap, alcohol, nail polish, or any other substance, either. Failure to follow these instructions could cause the tick to release pathogens into the bloodstream. Once the tick is totally removed, the affected area should be swabbed with alcohol.

The Impact of Tick-Borne Diseases

“Ticks are … a leading cause of infectious disease in the United States,” said Adams. They are famously known for causing Lyme disease, with symptoms ranging from the flu-like to arthritis and encephalopathy. Rocky Mountain spotted fever and deer tick virus can be lethal. The CDC recommends visiting a doctor if a rash or flu-like symptoms appear within a few weeks of a tick attachment.

Tick Analysis and Study Participation

NCSU tests for a total of thirteen tick-borne diseases, but they will not be performing these tests on ticks sent as part of the study at hand. TickCheck.com provides instructions on how to capture, process, and deliver ticks for pathological analysis. Bitten people have to remove the tick and bag it. Then, they have to fill out a request, which requires them to make their best effort at identifying the tick and guessing which diseases they may have contracted. They then drop the tick with the request in a mailbox; no hazard declarations are required. The test will usually be completed within two business days of receipt.

To participate in Adams’ study, in addition to sending the ticks, citizen scientists must complete a survey and sign a consent form for each kit they return. They are also given contact information in case they “have questions about [their] rights as a participant or are concerned with [their] treatment throughout the research process.”

Data Privacy and Tick Information

Respondents are told that not only will their names be scrubbed from the data, but the information they provide “will not be shared.” Details requested include best estimates of the time and place the tick(s) attached, and the place description should include the name of the place and county and a description of the landscape. Questions people might be uncomfortable answering include inquiries about their ethnicity, age, and gender and what they were doing when they picked up the tick(s). As with TickCheck.com, people sending ticks must make their best effort to identify each tick’s species, using aids available on the website if necessary. Persons wanting general information about their tick(s) can submit a request to NCSU via email.