Male and female lone star ticks
Lone star ticks. Photo courtesy of Deborah Hudman.

Scientists are asking Missouri residents to send them live ticks in the mail in an effort to better understand the diseases spread by the tiny arachnid.

Missouri has the highest prevalence in the U.S. of a tick-borne bacterial disease called ehrlichiosis, according to Deborah Hudman, senior researcher at A.T. Still University in northeast Missouri.

“Missouri is the tick bite capital of the nation,” said William Stoecker, a dermatologist in Rolla, Missouri.

In Hudman’s research in Adair County in northeastern Missouri, she found that 25% of ticks were carrying the bacteria that causes ehrlichiosis. Physicians told her they’ve seen large numbers of patients with tick-borne diseases. And people spending time in the outdoors have noticed higher numbers of ticks.

“I surveyed the local residents and they said, ‘I’m pulling more than 26 ticks off of me a year,’” Hudman said. 

Erin Skornia, 40, resident of Jefferson City, Missouri, has had three different kinds of tick-borne disease. Most recently, she had Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In August, she went to the doctor with neck pain, swollen lymph nodes and rashes on her calves after being bitten by ticks on a jog. Both of her parents also recently had Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Skornia is a botanist and got ehrlichiosis while working on a conservation project in 2015 and Lyme disease in 2009 while mushroom hunting in the Martin City area of Kansas City. Both times, her first symptom was diarrhea. With Lyme disease, Skornia also had a fever, fatigue, emotional issues and swollen lymph nodes.

Now, Skornia documents all of her encounters with ticks in a calendar. She also takes precautions against ticks, like treating long socks with permethrin, an insecticide usually used to treat scabies and lice, before going outside.

“There is little awareness from people who aren’t outdoorsy people,” Skornia said. “People don’t know about it.”

Why ‘citizen science’ is important and helpful

Ticks, which pass disease when latching onto a host, are most active in the Kansas City area from March through September, although they can be found throughout the year.

The southern tick-associated rash illness was first described and diagnosed by Missouri physicians. And a host of other tick-borne pathogens can be found in Missouri, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the Heartland and Bourbon viruses and tularemia.

Hudman wants to use “citizen science” to learn more about what kinds of ticks are found in different regions of Missouri and what types of disease they carry.

“I am asking every person from the state of Missouri, from all reaches, if they can send me what ticks they interact with,” Hudman said.

The new research study is a collaboration between A.T. Still University and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In the Missouri Department of Conservation’s outreach on social media and other platforms, there’s been a lot of concern about ticks. 

There weren’t any large-scale research studies being done in the state on the topic. 

Missouri is considered a gap state by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to knowledge of the prevalence of different pathogens in ticks, Hudman said.

“It gets overlooked,” Hudman said. “It took a long time for people to get awareness of Lyme disease. These other tick-borne diseases are very much understudied.”

The study counts on members of the public to mail in ticks they find while they’re outdoors. During the first two weeks of the study, Hudman has already received over 800 ticks from 93 counties, out of 114.

“The response has been phenomenal,” Hudman said. “People are very interested in this, and they are helping me so much by sending me these ticks.”

Citizen science helps researchers solve problems that would be resource-intensive otherwise. The geographic range that the study can get from using citizens is more than what researchers could do on their own. And the budget it would take to hire people to collect ticks from across the state would be unreasonable, Hudman said.

How to send in ticks for the study

  • Download and fill out the submission form, along with an envelope
  • Place tick sample in a plastic zip bag with a damp piece of paper towel or cotton ball
  • Fold your tick sample bag and place in another plastic bag with the submission form
  • Put this bag in your addressed envelope and send in the mail with one stamp for postage

It also gives researchers more information about what types of ticks people are naturally interacting with. 

Citizen science can also raise awareness and make people more invested in research problems.

“They are going to be thinking about (ticks) more and looking at them more on their pets, livestock and game,” Hudman said.

The researchers will be updating a map throughout the study, where people who have contributed to the study and others will be able to look at the current data.

Tick data will help doctors as well as researchers

Hudman hopes the study will provide a baseline of information that currently isn’t available in Missouri at regional and local levels.

The study could also be a useful tool for raising awareness in physicians. If a doctor knows a certain type of tick or pathogen is more common in their county, that information could help them when they are ordering a tick panel.

“There are a lot of ticks here, and there is also a lot of potential for misdiagnosis going on,” Hudman said.

How to protect yourself from tick-borne disease

  • Walk in the center of trails and avoid tall grass
  • Use an insect repellent, like DEET or permethrin
  • Lighter color clothing can help you spot ticks
  • Remove ticks promptly with tweezers
  • Disinfect your skin with soap and water

For example, although Rocky Mountain spotted fever gets diagnosed in Adair County, she has never found it in a tick located in the county. Thankfully, the bacterial diseases caused by ticks are treated with the same type of antibiotic, she said.

“But it would be nice just to have an accurate picture of what disease is present in which tick species,” Hudman said.

Knowing which ticks are around can help physicians make diagnoses, Stoecker said.

One example of how it could help is in determining whether to diagnose a patient with southern tick-associated rash illness or Lyme disease, he said.

“This is a beautiful project. I think it’s a great idea,” Stoecker said.

The study will be running until September 2022, and the map of citizen science tick submissions will be updated weekly.

While tick-borne diseases are a concern, the Missouri Department of Conservation wants to make sure that fear of ticks doesn’t stop people from getting outside.

“There are a whole lot of health benefits that you get from going outdoors,” said Matt Combes, a supervisor in the department’s ecological health unit.

“Get educated about the risks there are and how to prevent them or reduce them. And then continue to enjoy nature.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.