LYNCHBURG — One professor and a group of about 15 students in the University of Lynchburg’s Master of Public Health program are working on new research that zeroes in on ticks in the area, including learning where they are, how many of them live in the city and whether they might carry tick-borne diseases.
A group of students on Wednesday evening scoured the school’s campus for the parasites. The students’ research is led by Jenny Hall, assistant professor of health promotion and public health and the director of Master of Public Health Program at University of Lynchburg.
Since she started at UL in 2015, she has been showing a documentary, “Under Our Skin,” which depicts the difficulty in diagnosing Lyme disease, a condition spread by ticks.
This year, Hall purchased large white cloths, called tick-dragging cloths, to take to area trails and parks to help collect ticks.
Hall said ticks like tall grass but can crawl into trees, where she sometimes sees them in cobwebs, which is why eventually she hopes to do some high-reaching tick dragging in the future.
On Wednesday, the students walked around the woods on campus dragging the cloths, stopping every 10 or 15 feet to pick ticks off the cloth with tweezers and place them in a jar.
Once collected, the ticks will be sent to a lab to test their DNA, which could pinpoint more illnesses beyond Lyme disease, Hall said.
Not all ticks carry Lyme, just the black-legged, or deer, tick. Hall said there are multiple types of ticks that carry multiple tick-borne diseases, 10 to 12 common ones, and they are increasing across the nation with new ones popping up in different parts of the country.
Most well-known tick-borne diseases include the Alpha-gal allergy, which is a meat allergy and can come from the bite of certain ticks, such as the lone star tick, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a bacterial infection spread from the bite of a wood tick or dog tick.
Hall said ticks like warmer weather and taller grass, so people should stay on the main trail when hiking or walking in parks. She also recommended wearing white-colored clothing to better spot ticks and long-sleeved pants and tops, as ticks like warm spots on people.
Kyle Mullen, an environmental health specialist with the Lynchburg Department of Health, participated in survey research in one of Hall’s classes last year related to the diagnosis and patient management of Lyme disease.
Mullen said Hall knew of his interest in parasite diseases and once he graduated, she reached out to him to see if he would be interested in assisting her with this year’s research project.
He said it is important to continually monitor the spread of tick populations to inform the public on when and where ticks are present, what disease they are potentially carrying and the best methods to prevent their spread.
“I was more than willing to lend my help and hope to create some meaningful mapping for our local area,” he said. “The burden of vector-borne diseases, especially tick related, have continued to rise as the climate emergency worsens, the encroachment of human population in more rural areas and lack of general knowledge.”
The climate crisis has caused longer feeding seasons for many of these ticks and the shortened, warmer winters have prevented the once-seasonal freeze and kill of much of the tick population, he said. That, in turn, increases the total tick population and provides a greater opportunity for the transmission of any disease the ticks might carry.
“Informing others on these accessory impacts brings the crisis closer to home and affords them the ability to monitor the risk of their own exposure,” he said. “As we collect more data, over time we will be able to better inform the public on these risks and report any changes that may occur.”
Rebekkah McLellan received her Master of Public Health degree from UL last year and completed her thesis on the prevalence of tick disease at a local animal hospital.
She collected data from all dogs being tested for tick disease and patients she suspected had a tick disease but were not tested.
She said the topic interests her because much like many other diseases, many people do not understand the risk for them or their pets.
“I want to better the community and educating them is one way to do that. I also see these diseases so much in my work at the animal hospital and in my personal life, having my pets and many members of my social circle and family testing positive [for tick-borne diseases] within the past four years,” she said.
McLellan said she hopes to raise awareness with the work.
“I don’t believe that we are the miracle workers who are going to identify, cure the diseases, and educate the public alone. But, what if we changed just one life? What if we helped just one person or one animal in the prevention or identification of these kinds of diseases?”
Eventually, Hall hopes to create maps available for public use about where these ticks are located so the community can be aware of their surroundings in local parks and trails.
“It’s the importance of checking yourself after you’ve been outside and knowing which ones are most common and where you can find them,” Hall said.
“There isn’t necessarily a time of the year for ticks anymore. The climate change thing is real and temperatures are warmer and for longer.”