Research connects disease to sudden emergence of ticks in past five years

Reports of Lyme disease in the Ottawa area have been increasing in recent years, leading researchers at the University of Ottawa to investigate the geographical reasons behind this upward trend.

Manisha Kulkarni, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology, Public Health, and Preventive Medicine researches pathogens that are transmitted by insects and arthropods, and believes that the high rate of Lyme disease in Ottawa is the result of more ticks in the region.

“We are looking to identify parts of Ottawa where tick populations are more likely to be able to establish, as well as try to identify where people are contracting the disease,” said Kulkarni.

Kulkarni has previously worked on malaria transmission in Africa, as well as the Zika virus in Latin America, and currently researches mosquito-born diseases in Canada.

Kulkarni and her team of researchers have been laying the groundwork for their research on ticks and Lyme disease for over two years, and have also partnered up with Ottawa Public Health, but the real work began in 2016, after receiving funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

“Because of the increase of Lyme disease in Canada and with Ottawa being at the frontier, it seemed like the perfect timing to look at it,” said Kulkarni, whose research has involved testing ticks for Lyme disease and looking at human surveillance data to identify patterns and trends.

Looking at research that has already been done in Canada, and narrowing her scope to a smaller geographical region, Kulkarni has determined that the increase in the tick population that carries the disease is a result of climate change—ticks are able to spread north with their host animal population. Such animals include deer, which have relocated due to the impacts of climate change on their habitats.

There have been almost no reports of Lyme disease around the year 2010, but an increase emerged in 2013, “We have seen that the rate of tick population has been quite rapid in the last five years” said Kulkarni.

Kulkarni’s research identified that “the expansion northward of ticks and Lyme disease is coming from the north-eastern United States,” specifically as species such as deer and birds migrate from the U.S. to Canada.

“The major application of the research is to help to inform messaging for different population groups,” said Kulkarni, who hopes to assist her partners at Ottawa Public Health partners to make this information more available to everyone.

Moving forward with the research, Kulkarni and her team of researchers will be out in the field this fall sampling different areas “to generate an ecological model.” In each sampling site Kulkarni said they collect location and weather data, and drag for ticks, a method of collecting the insects.

Further, the ticks are then taken back to the lab to identify their species. If they are blacklegged ticks they get tested for Lyme disease by detecting DNA markers of the Lyme disease bacterium.

This process of sampling will involve identifying environmental risk areas, connections between where someone lives and their rate of Lyme disease, and factors such as age and sex. Kulkarni and her team currently have 20 sites to study, including provincial parks and trails around Ottawa.

“The key importance of our work is to inform people that there is a risk out there so that they can take precautions against tick bites,” said Kulkarni.

To stay safe and prevent Lyme disease, Kulkarni encourages people to stay aware and informed, and to take precautions by  wearing repellents, long sleeve clothing, doing thorough tick checks after hikes, or when near a wooded area or any potential tick habitat.