Columbia University

Columbia-Developed App Becomes Tool in Battle Against Tickborne Diseases

A research team from Columbia University are using an App to fight tickborne diseases in NYC

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What to Know

  • Ticks and tickborne diseases have been steadily increasing in the United States in recent years
  • During the pandemic, New Yorkers increased usage of outdoor spaces elevated tick exposure by 30%
  • The 'Tick App' developed by researchers at Columbia University helps collect data on tick encounters

With the warmer spring months on the horizon and the fatigue of staying indoors reaching its peak, New Yorkers will inevitably soon start to flock to outdoor spaces. Yet, alongside the sunshine and fresh air comes the risk of ticks, which has been made more prevalent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ticks have been steadily increasing in the United States in recent years. In fact, between 2004 and 2016, the number of annual reports of tickborne diseases nearly doubled. According to the NYS Department of Health, the increase in cases can be blamed on several factors; the rising temperatures caused by climate change, reforestation efforts which have led to larger deer populations and increased human exposure.

Whilst most ticks are harmless to humans, some have the potential to infect outdoor-goers with ailments like Lyme disease, which in serious cases, can cause paralysis and chronic fatigue. The black-legged tick is a common species of tick found in New York, one in four of which are infected with Lyme disease, so poses a risk.

New research from a lab at Columbia University has found that during the pandemic, New York City residents were using outdoor spaces like backyards and parks more frequently, leading to a 30% increase in tick exposure. This is because ticks can be found in wooded areas with high grass or leaf litter, common to yards and suburban green spaces. According to Professor Maria Diuk-Wasser, Principal Investigator at the Columbia Eco-Epidemiology lab, “People can be exposed in their backyards while doing gardening or when they go to a natural area."

The lab conducts research on ticks in Staten Island, given that it has the highest tick prevalence out of all the New York City boroughs, in part due to its high population of deer.

They investigate the complex ecosystem that links local wildlife and ticks, as well as the role of humans within it to understand how humans come to be exposed to ticks. By using a "Tick App" they designed, the lab collects data on human tick encounters to further understand how human behavioral patterns can lead to tick exposure. They also study green spaces and urban corridors to understand the role of animals’ movements in proliferating tick cases.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has raised awareness of how diseases that jump from wildlife to humans have been exacerbated by human interference in the environment. However, the opposite may also be true. Whilst many often tend to think of the green spaces in the city as a positive, Diuk-Wasser explains that there are always risks involved: “unfortunately any area of contact between wildlife and humans can provide an opportunity for spillover, either people encroaching into natural areas or natural areas being brought into urban spaces."

Diuk-Wasser explains that there is a need for balance between the promise and perils of green spaces in cities “People think about green spaces and wellbeing and focus on the benefits, which of course are huge, but there’s also a risk people incur. How do we balance those and inform people so they know they have to protect themselves?"

In order to protect yourself from ticks, NYS health recommends the following:

  • Wear appropriate clothing when outdoors and tuck your pants into your socks
  • Spray your clothes with a bug-repellent
  • Always shower and check thoroughly for ticks after you think you’ve been exposed

If you find a tick on yourself, you can log it in research teams’ "Tick App" and follow guidelines for how to remove it and monitor for symptoms.

Most experts say deet is more helpful than harmful since it can protect against ticks and mosquitoes which carry disease. KPRC's Haley Hernandez has some tips on how you can protect your family.
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