Summer is in full effect and with temperatures rising we are seeing more people spending time outdoors hiking, gardening, playing games, and even just going on walks. It’s been drilled in our minds to remember sunscreen to protect us from UVA and UVB rays, bring water to stay hydrated in warm temperatures, but what are we to do about our increased exposure to ticks?
Ticks are known for being carriers of Lyme disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported every year by state departments. And Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services reports that 2017 had the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the state to date.
Ticks in Wisconsin, including deer ticks who are carriers of the disease, are commonly found in the state’s wooded areas. But they are also showing up more and more in the state’s cities and suburbs. This incursion likely means more people could encounter them while working or relaxing in their backyards.
Is there a way we can track our exposure to ticks without limiting our time outside?
Researchers from UW-Madison department of entomology, Columbia University, and University of Michigan have teamed up for a behavioral study to better understand where and how people encounter ticks. Rather than having the study conducted in a traditional format, the team developed a free smartphone application called, “The Tick App” to distribute the survey to a variety of users. Dr. Susan Paskewitz is the chair of the entomology department at UW-Madison and principal investigator.
While the app is a research tool, it also teaches users how to identify different tick species, strategies to avoid being bitten, provides the option to send your tick image in for identification, and safe tick removal techniques from humans and animals.
“When you have an app that has so much information surrounding different topics, like health and risk, you need to be careful about how you communicate with your audience,” said Dominique Brossard, LSC professor and chair. “Which is why when I met with Dr. Paskewitz, we thought it was a perfect project for LSC to be involved in.”
LSC Master’s student, Claire Holesovsky has been working with the Tick App team helping solidify app content, maximizing usability, and developing a marketing campaign surrounding the app.
“It’s been a great experience being involved in such an interdisciplinary project like this,” said Holesovsky. “Thinking about what makes an app user friendly and marketing it in such a way has been a whole new science communication experience for me.”
In addition to providing resources for identifying ticks the Tick App prompts users to record entries in a “Daily Log,” whether they encountered ticks or not. The entries ideally include the location of users’ outdoor activities to help researchers understand where people are encountering ticks, as well as where they aren’t.
A new feature in the 2019 updated app is that it can provide users with a tick risk forecast based on their location. The forecast is based on historical tick abundance.
“During the app’s development in 2018, our colleagues from the UW Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies asked what a lot of the App content meant. I didn’t realize there was so much jargon,” explains Bieneke Bron, a post-doc from the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-borne Diseases working on the project. “Having LSC’s help with the content has been not only a major improvement for the App, but even my own science communication skills.”
By having users interact with the app features, the research team will be able to design better prevention strategies to reduce risky tick bites in the Midwest and Northeast. Before they can do that, though, they need more users. The Tick App team are hoping to increase their numbers to around 2,000 in 2019.
You can download the app from iTunes and Google Play Store. Questions about the Tick App can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. And more information, including posters and flyers can be found on www.thetickapp.org. Make sure to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Story by Madison Brunett, LSC B.S. ’19 and LSC’s 2018-19 Lenore Landry Scholar