A Gulf Coast tick, Amblyomma maculatum. Photo by Sturgis McKeever, Georgia Southern University Bugwood.org.

May 1, 2024

Community-Engaged Passive Tick Surveillance: A Vital Initiative at INHS Medical Entomology Lab

Ticks in Illinois aren’t just a nuisance but also vectors for various diseases, including Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis and alpha-gal syndrome. With the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses on the rise throughout areas of the state, monitoring tick populations is a crucial step in promoting public health and awareness.

One effective method gaining traction in Illinois is community-engaged passive tick surveillance, and the INHS Medical Entomology Lab at the Prairie Research Institute is at the forefront of such initiatives.

A brownish reddish tick with eight legs.
Ixodes cookei (Groundhog tick) female. Photo credit by Emily Struckhoff, INHS Medical Entomology Lab.

What is a Community-Engaged Passive Tick Surveillance Program?

Community-engaged passive tick surveillance involves the collection and analysis of ticks from the environment by a designated facility. Typically, members of the public submit ticks they find on themselves or a family member.

Unlike active surveillance, which involves actively seeking out ticks from activities such as tick drags, passive surveillance relies on members of the community voluntarily submitting ticks they come across during their daily activities.

“We’re able to get a sense of where people are coming in contact with ticks,” said Chris Stone, Ph.D., Director of the INHS Medical Entomology Lab. “We’re also getting some information from people about what kind of preventative methods they are using, if any.”

The community-engaged passive tick surveillance program, supported by the Illinois Lyme Association (ILA) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), has received more than 700 ticks from the public to date. The information collected is being used to facilitate the creation of a comprehensive database of tick distribution and disease prevalence throughout Illinois. The database will serve as an invaluable resource for residents, researchers, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and state and local organizations to better understand tick prevalence, the dynamics of tick-borne diseases, and implement targeted prevention and education strategies.

Why Public Participation Matters

By engaging in passive tick surveillance, the public plays a crucial role in monitoring tick populations.

“If we can crowdsource the tick, so to speak, we get to places we might not necessarily go,” Stone said. “We can cast a wider net.”

Here are a few areas directly impacted by community participation:

A brownish reddish tick with eight legs and a light off-white area around its head.
Amblyomma maculatum (Gulf Coast tick) female. Photo by Emily Struckhoff, INHS Medical Entomology Lab.
  • Early Detection and Monitoring: Early identification of ticks in specific areas can alert authorities to potential disease hotspots, enabling prompt intervention measures. Through community-based passive tick surveillance, the Gulf Coast tick was discovered farther north in Illinois than previously recorded. Additionally, the groundhog tick, which can transmit Powassan virus, was also discovered, and both ticks were submitted by Illinois residents.
  • Research and Development: The data collected through passive surveillance programs fuels research into tick ecology, behavior, and disease transmission. This research is instrumental in developing more effective prevention and control measures, such as repellents and environmental management strategies.
  • Public Awareness and Education: “The more time someone spends outdoors the greater the risk they come in contact with ticks,” said Stone. Therefore, participation in passive tick surveillance programs raises public awareness about the risks associated with ticks and tick-borne diseases. It also reinforces the importance of tick prevention measures, such as wearing protective clothing, using repellents, and conducting regular and thorough tick checks when coming indoors.
  • Community Engagement: Passive surveillance programs foster community engagement and collaboration in tackling public health issues. By involving the residents of Illinois in data collection efforts, these programs promote a sense of ownership and responsibility for protecting public health.

How to Get Involved

Submitting ticks to the passive tick surveillance program is the primary way to assist in research efforts.

“When people are engaged and looking at ticks and sending them in, they become more knowledgeable about ticks themselves and the natural history of ticks,” Stone said. “We’re able to collect more information from the human side.”

The INHS Medical Etymology Lab’s website provides instructions and tools for safely collecting and submitting ticks. Tick identification is available to the public free of charge and can be obtained by sending in a photo or the actual tick. With the public’s help, researchers can gather a broader range of tick species, including those found on animals. The main requirements to submit ticks are:

  • date
  • location
  • whether the tick was attached or loose
  • whether the person who was bitten traveled outside their county of residence in the last 10 days
Two gray maps of the state of Illinois with the counties outlined in dark gray lines. On one map two of the counties are colored in blue, and in the other map four counties are colored in blue.
The counties where the two species were collected through passive surveillance. Map courtesy of Chris Stone.

In addition, the INHS Medical Entomology Lab may test a subset of the ticks submitted for tick-borne diseases after they have been identified, but they don’t guarantee this service. Is is helpful to know what kind of tick you’ve encountered, but the tick identification services are for research purposes only and should not be used as a diagnostic tool.

Beyond the community-engaged passive tick surveillance program, the INHS Medical Entomology Lab offers a free online video course through Illinois Extension Forestry on the topic of tick-borne diseases throughout Illinois.

Key Takeaway

Community-engaged passive tick surveillance programs represent a proactive approach to addressing the growing threat of tick-borne diseases in Illinois. With the collective efforts of the public, the INHS Medical Entomology Lab is making strides in their understanding of the tick population, and the data collected will soon be readily available to the public.

“Our goal is to make this information into an interactive map for the public soon,” Stone noted.

For more details on the community-engaged passive tick surveillance check out the INHS Medical Entomology Lab website.

Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio, OTR/L, is a health journalist based in Indiana and licensed occupational therapist. She lives with her husband and rescue dogs Emmi and Opal. When not writing, she can be found buried in a book, working out, or out in nature. Her work has been featured in HuffPo, Prevention, Men’s Health, Healthline and many other publications.

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