Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
May 24, 2022

Six Ticks: in the Lyme Light

Six Ticks: in the Lyme Light

If a tick bites you in the woods, and it's free of disease-causing pathogens, does it matter? We wanted to know how many of our Catskills ticks are pathogenetic, so we sent 6 of them to the Thangamani Lab at Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse, NY. You, too, can send any New York tick, and Dr. Thangamani and his team will test it (for free!) for Lyme disease-causing bacteria, and 16 additional pathogens. It's all part of a massive citizen science research initiative tracking distribution of species and pathogens statewide. You can explore those trends using Dr. Thangamani's tick maps, updated daily by county. NYticks.org is also where forms can be found to submit your own tick(s) for testing. Let us know how it goes! 

Thanks to our sponsors: Hanford Mills Museum, the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway, and The Mountain Eagle.

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If a tick bites you in the woods and it's free of disease causing pathogens, does it matter? On today's podcast, Six Ticks from the Central Catskills made their way to the Thanganami Lab at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, where they were tested not just for Lyme Disease causing bacteria, but 16 additional pathogens ticks can carry. Stay tuned for those results, and for an opportunity to participate in Dr. Thangamani's citizen science research. This episode of Kaatscast is sponsored by the Hanford Mills Museum. Their season began May 15th. Explore the power of the past as you watch the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life. Bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about the museum's new exploration days, visit hanfordmills.org or call 607-278-5744. And by the 52 Mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway, following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. My name is Saravanan Thangamani. I'm a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the SUNY Upstate Medical University. I'm a waterborne disease researcher and also a virologist; what that means is that any disease that are caused by mosquitoes and ticks. My lab primarily focuses on the viral diseases like Chicken Gonorrhea virus, Zika virus, West Nile virus; transmitted by mosquitoes. And on the tech side, I am interested in Powassan virus, which is kind of endemic to New York State and northeastern United States. We'll talk about Powassan virus later in the show. It's a scary one. But most tick borne pathogens in our region are bacterial and the cause of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, which can cause fever, headache, chills, and worse. Catskills ticks can also carry a parasitic pathogen causing Babesiosis. None of these are good. When Dr. Saravanan Thangamani moved from Houston, Texas, to Syracuse, New York, his research shifted from mosquito borne diseases to tick borne diseases. Because, you know, where I'm coming from mosquito disease area to a tick disease area, so my interest kind of shifted more to the tick borne disease area. Along with that my interest in Lyme disease got increased as well. So that's the only bacterial pathogen the lab is interested in. Everything else we work only on the viruses; very first project that we did after coming to Syracuse is to identify where Powassan virus positive ticks are present in the state of New York. So basically, we want to identify where they are. If I go to my yard, and I collect the ticks and test them, 1/3 of the ticks will be positive for the Lyme disease agent. However, it's not the same for viruses, or it's not the same for other tick borne agents. So we went to public lands, state parks, city parks to collect the ticks, and test them for viruses. That's how we started initially. But soon we realize that it is difficult for us because New York State is big. So we decided that okay, instead of us going to every single place, why don't we ask the public to send the tech to us, and then we test them for all the agents, including the viruses, and the Lyme disease agent. We originally started for Central New York, just you know, because we were so focused on where we are, we got a very good support from the public, and you know, a lot of people wanted to send the ticks to my lab. So we decided, okay, let's expand to upstate New York within a week. Then we have to expand it to the entire state of New York because of the outpouring support we got from the public and how many people actually were encountering the tick and they want to get it tested. So it is a synergistic effort. The data that we are collecting is good for my research, and the data that I'm providing the public is good for them, because they get to know what is in the tech. So it is a win-win solution, and it's a perfect community academic partnership. You know, it's like that's how citizen science are being done. So we've been doing this for nearly three years now, and we have also developed a dashboard, a tick map we call it, where we actually upload the data in real time. So anyone with internet access can actually find where are the Lyme disease agent positive ticks are there. Where are the Powassan virus ticks are there in a county level. It's an interactive tool, and I know that public are using, clinicians are using, policymakers are using, and researchers are using. So it is now I'm calling this as a public health tool to track the emergence of ticks and tick borne agents in the state of New York. Will you continue to accept ticks indefinitely? What is there, or is there an end date or a goal? I wouldn't say indefinitely, because it's all about funding for the program. I started this program with my discretionary money to begin with, because it was supposed to feed research data to me. So I invested in that. We didn't realize that it will actually evolve into a major program. I didn't envision that; it was not in my plan at all. My plan was to identify the hotspots for Powassan virus, and then do further investigation in that hotspot and my research is done. But because of the way our community reacted to them, because of the way how support I was getting all the support, I realize is that our research means more than what I thought. So that's why we decided to kind of expand our program continue to provide it. So right now our university is supporting this program. Definitely they are not going to support indefinitely. So we are reaching out to every single source to get funding. It's all depends on the funding. If I have funding, I will do it perpetually. We do collect funds from the public as well. But again, at the end of the day, the bottom line is, if we have funding, we will be able to do it. So a New Yorker finds a tick, puts it in a Ziploc bag with a moist paper towel to keep it hydrated, which is important to the research, and being able to test the tick when it arrives. Can you explain how you analyze the ticks when they arrive? When the public in New York State, or when someone comes to New York State and encounter a tick, obviously, I tell the people when you go tracking or do outdoor activity, as soon as you come back home test for the tick; do a tick check. And then when they find the tick, they pull it out, put it in a Ziploc bag with a moist paper towel, and then go to NYticks.org, complete the tick submission form, and once you complete the tick submission form, a unique tick ID will be provided. And then I asked the public to actually write the unique tick ID on the ziplock bag and then send it to the lab in a bubble wrap. So the reason there are two things; one, bubble wrap preserves a tick so it doesn't get squished when it goes through the you know postal scanners and you have to write 'Not Scannable' on it, otherwise, it will go through the machine scanner, and that will squish the tick. And if it is fed, it will actually release the blood into the tissue paper, then it will mold and grow, and it will be nasty. So that's why we tell people to put in the bubble wrap. The moist tissue allows the tick, as you mentioned, keeps the tick hydrated; keeps the tick fresh. You remove the moisture from the environment, ticks will die right away. And the reason why we want is that we use the tick to identify what agents they are. Also, we save half of the tick material for future research purposes, like isolating new Borrelia; isolating new virus. For that we need to preserve them in good condition, otherwise, we will not be able to isolate them; we'll not be able to culture them. So that's why I'm asking them to put it in a tissue like mice tissue. So every day around noon, the postal box will be delivered to my lab and we then take them and we open the bubble wrap and then the ziplock bags will be removed from the bubble wrap and we will look for the tick ID on them. And then we type in that particular number. It will pull all the information that the submitter has submitted with a look of the tick under the microscope, identify them, and then wash them because ticks are, you know, dirty they can have lot of contamination. So we surface sterilize the tick and then we transfer the tick into a special cocktail mixture and then we take it to a tissue homogenizer so we put a two BB beads like two metal beads, same size as BB gun beads for each tick in a small while and then the tissue homogenizers shakes vigorously for five minutes. What happens is that these BB beads and you know ticks got mixed together, it will massacre the tick into millions of pieces. That allows all the biological material to get released into the special cocktail that we have. Then we remove the BB beads, and then that biological content that is now called homogenized material will be used for nucleic acid extraction. Once the nucleic acids are extracted, we then use our special acid that is developed in the lab to detect 17 tick borne agents that are commonly present in the state of New York. Combining the user submitted data and the lab collected data, together we are collecting at the minimum 43 sets of data for each tick. So those 43 sets of data are now put into the tick dashboard. So that's what people see the public dashboard is; we kind of incorporate all those data. Obviously, we don't present all four degree sets of data because of privacy concerns. So we go up to the county level, we don't go beyond to the zip level, but the zip code level data I'm providing to county health people or city health people, because they can use that information to make informed decisions on tick control, tick education, and also their management if that is needed. You know, maybe I have a short memory, but I don't remember ticks being a major problem when I was a kid. Were there less of them or were pathogens less widespread? No, they were less ticks that's why. As population grows, we invade. You know, we tried to build our community in the woods and forests and so technically, you know from urban center, we are slowly starting to move to rural center or we are converting the rural environment into an urban environment, which means that now we are living amongst the deer we are living amongst the deer mice, we are living amongst the groundhogs, which means that they carry the ticks. So we are coming closer to the ticks. I see deer almost every day that crosses my yard. I see groundhogs in my yard, I see deer mice; they carry the ticks and they drop the ticks wherever they go. And tick borne pathogens also emerge along the way, but emergence of tick borne pathogen, there are multiple factors that play a role. And that's one reason why we started this program is to understand what factors influenced the pathogen emergence and what makes a particular you know, let's say neighborhood, so unique that it has like, I would say that, you know, you know, you're from Catskills, the lower Hudson Valley, that's a hotbed for tick borne diseases. You have Lyme disease there, you have Powassan virus there, you have Anaplasma there, you have a Babeciosis there. And there are two new ticks that are emerging there as well, the Lone Star ticks, and the Asian Longhorn tick that was recently identified in the United States and they are slowly kind of marching from tri state area, to the Catskills, to the lower Hudson Valley, and then they will move all the way to the northern part of the Adirondacks and Center New York and Western New York. So that's the pattern we are seeing. So that is something that we can monitor this emergence over a period of time in real time. Is climate change leading to their migration north? Definitely climate change is influencing migration of animals, and migration of small animals particularly because that helps the ticks to perpetuate because the ticks like to feed on the small mammals, and also on the deer adults feed on the deer. Smaller stages like larvae and nymphs. They feed on deer mice and small mammals. Why are ticks so good at spreading disease? Takes away how they they can survive any harsh weather; the only thing that they can't survive is dry condition. They need a little bit of moisture, and they can live for a long period of time without taking the food. When adults feed on a deer they lay eggs; 5000 Eggs minimum. 5000 eggs. One female infected with the Powassan virus can lay eggs for 5000 larvae and 90% of the larvae will be positive for the virus. And also every single life state of the tick, it needs to feed on a mammal, either a mouse or a fox or a squirrel or a groundhog or a deer it has to come in contact with an animal. As we all know from COVID, wild animals carry lots of diseases, human wildlife interaction allows the transfer of you know zoonotic agents to humans, and once the tick acquires the pathogen, it stays within for entire life, which means that if a larvae requires a pathogen, it will feed. It will mold to become nymph, and the nymph will be positive for the agent. It will feed and become adult, and the adult will be positive. So you have more chance of encountering a tick that has a pathogen. So according to the maps that you have on your site, New York State has 15 distinct species of ticks. I, I knew about you know a couple. Not all of them are, you know, highly dangerous to humans, but I can tell that they like deer ticks, obviously everybody's know about it that carry Lyme disease and seven other agents and dog ticks are emerging and the Lone Star ticks. Lone Star ticks at this time, 90% of them are in Suffolk County, and Manhattan, New York City counties. However, they are slowly you know, we're starting to see Lonestar ticks coming in central New York as well. But in the next few years it will happen here. And the Asian Longhorn tick; that is emerging as well. In addition to that, we recently together with our collaborators in in New York City, we identified an established population of Gulf Coast tick. Traditionally, you know, as the name suggests, Gulf Coast tick, normally they are present only on the Gulf Coast of the United States, like Louisiana or closer in Texas, that area. But we saw an established population in Staten Island, we published that and they carry another disease. Deer ticks, dog ticks, Lonestar ticks, Asian Longhorn tick, and the Gulf Coast tick. These are the five major tick of public health importance in the New York State. To date, as of this conversation, you've tested 19,601 ticks; 34.7% had a pathogen of some kind. Exactly. So that's more than 1/3 of a tick that is positive. Again, we are normalizing to the entire state of New York. So if you use a map and click Onondaga County, maybe 40%. You go to Dutchess County, it may be 50%. You go to Suffolk County it's less, because we get most of the Lonestar ticks from there. So yeah, every county is different. And also, even within the county, even the every neighborhood is different. I can tell exactly which zip code has the highest risk for Lyme disease agent ticks. And that's the information I give it to the county, that's information I give it to public health. So they know exactly which area that they have to target for tick education, control and deer management. You know, I know not every county approves deer management. But that could be you know that if someone wants to use it, that data is available for them. So let's get to the part we've all been waiting for hear the unveiling of the results of the six ticks that I sent to your lab, and maybe you can shed some light on what all of this means. So tick 23059 was D variableness. Yes; that's a Dog Tick. Female and she was negative. Yeah. And that's a good thing, because that's the one that was on my wife's scalp. The other ones I collected from outside by dragging a white t shirt through the leaves. So the next was D very Apalis, Dog Tick, female, negative. Third tick; it's a male deer tick and it tested positive for. Borrelia burgdorferi; that's the Lyme disease causing agent. Next tick I picked up was also a deer tick female, positive for the Lyme disease agent, tick 23063. Deer Tick female positive for Anaplasma. So that causes Anaplasmosis. Okay. So the ticks that you sent us, you know, half of them are dog ticks that didn't that tested negative for all the agents we tested. And the deer ticks that you sent, all three of them carry some disease causing agent. Two of them had Lyme disease agent, the other one had Anaplasma agent. There are three major tick borne diseases that are currently you know, of human health importance in the New York State, Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, and Babesiosis. And you had two of them. But again, the one thing that I wanted to kind of put the disclaimer is that just because the tape were positive, it doesn't mean that they may have transmitted the agent to you, it doesn't mean that you will get sick. This is an information, you can then relay that to your clinician. The clinician can make an informed decision based on that. Because it depends on how long it tick is feeding on a human that makes a big difference. If it just crawling, it's like nothing, you don't have to worry about it. But if it is embedded in your skin, it depends on how long it was attached to it. Like Anaplasma, anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, it will transmit the agent Borrelia sometime between I would say 24 to 48. But viruses are transmitted right away immediately upon attachment. And this is where we cue the scary music. If your tick had the Powassan virus, and if it was attached on your skin, even for one hour, it would have transmitted the virus. And also it's a fatal agent. So which means that 15 to 20% of the people who receive this agent from the tick will succumb to the disease. The second worst part is 50% of the survivors will have long term neurological sequelae, like loss of consciousness difficulty, walking difficulty, and like a slurred speech. It's very similar to Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. It's rare, but it's a highly dangerous disease to get. But would you get sick? That depends on individual person's health. You know someone has stronger immune system so they will you know, our immune system will react to that little bit of virus that has been delivered to the human. But let's assume the tick has the Powassan virus and it stays attached for four or five days. For five days it is constantly injecting the virus. So which means that your inoculum, or the virus, is so high that could actually lead to a symptomatic disease. But again, every human immune system is different. That is one thing that a lot of diseases are asymptomatic is that, you know, the way how our body reacts to that. Powassan virus has made it to Ulster County, but Dr. Thangamani assured me it is still very rare. This being citizen science, when I was dragging the t shirt along the ground, I did pick up a tiny spider; and at first I thought it was a tick because it was so small, and then I looked closer and saw that it was a spider. So I really stood and kept going. But when you go to the tick map for the state, the fifth most popular tick is labeled not a tick. So does that make you laugh when those come in? Not really, but I feel sorry for them. Because sometimes people who yank a mole thinking it's a tick, or sometimes they actually send the dry skin scab thinking it's a tick and sometimes skin tissue. Oh, wow. The other cluster is like beetles, spiders. Also, even sometimes we receive ants. So we have bunch of things. But I feel sorry for those that sends their mole, yanking a mole and sending a piece of skin, oh, that must be painful for them. People are scared. And I think that's one reason why they go to that extent to yank their mole thinking it's a tick. Education needs to be there, people need to be told how to recognize the tick and how to pull it gently so that they don't have to yank their mole or skin right. So it's, it's a process of educating it. And we are working with the Lyme disease advocacy organization, not for profit organizations who do education and you know how to recognize it and how not to have tick bites. I think that's the most important right? To not to have tick bites. I explained to Dr. Thangamani that the dog and deer ticks I harvested from our property all came from the leafy edges, nothing from the grass itself. I think that's a perfect observation. That's where I tell people to be careful, that's the perfect eco tone where you know, clean mowed grass meets a mowed path. That's where most of the you know, like wildlife will be crawling, because that's a perfect place for them. Landscape management, will, you know, help. It will go half the way to control the ticks, actually. So now you know, the ticks that are in your property, there are two types of ticks, you have doc ticks and deer ticks, and 100% of your deer ticks carry some pathogen, if you continue to send the tick to us, you have your own ecology data, you have your own data for your own neighborhood or your property. Right? So this gives us an information to the public. Sometimes what people told me is that they get the results and they realize that oh, they need to do landscape a little bit different so that they try to avoid deer walking through their property. Or they try to you know, CDC has a excellent guidebook on how to design the landscape in such a way that you limit your contact with the ticks. So they actually take proactive measures to redesign the landscape in such a way that avoid all the wildlife coming through the property. So we are changing the people behavior. And if it is attached to someone's body, they can always consult with their healthcare provider. And fortunately, you know, we are not a clinical laboratory. So I clearly tell them that we can't advise anybody on healthcare solutions. So I tell them, contact your clinician. It is a warning system; it's an advanced warning system for them to be proactively try to do, you know, take prevention measures in their property to check every time when they come inside. It is just to give them information about the risk of ticks. Like any other disease, it is very important to get access to healthcare solutions as quickly as possible. Because if you identify or if you detect a particular disease at the early stage, it's very easy to take antibiotics or any other, you know, control methods. But if it can't be detected early, then it's very difficult because that becomes you know, chronic; a lot of other complications that comes out of Lyme disease. So it's very important to identify this as early as possible, and we are just a tool in that process. What should every Catskiller know about our tick populations? You know, I would encourage people to to learn more about the ticks, to learn more about how you can avoid tick bites, how you can properly landscape your property in such a way that you can avoid any tick encounters. We can do all the best, but still, we can encounter the tick. So if you encounter a tick, take the tick, go to a website, learn how to send a check and send it to us. We'll test it for free. Then you can use the data for your informed decision making process either to landscape management or share the data with your healthcare provider for expedited healthcare solutions. It's a tool so that can they can take advantage of the tool. So be tick aware. That's what I would say Catskills; its a lot of ticks and be tick aware that's all I can tell. And finally, do you have any positive news on the tick borne disease front end? Anything coming out of the research that suggests that we may have a better time of dealing with this in the future? I think we are working on developing a vaccine. There's a couple of Lyme disease vaccines are in phase three clinical trials. So I think there's a lot of good news in that front. And definitely the technology that was used to develop the COVID vaccine. Now we are adopting the technology for other tick borne diseases as well. So I think, you know, in the coming years, three to five years, I think we will have some good news about vaccines for tick borne diseases, and also, a lot of researchers working on developing diagnostic methods that are more accurate that can detect the Lyme disease at the earliest stage in the in the best possible way. So diagnostics and health care or like vaccine development are going on at high speed. In about three to five years, we'll have both of these things available for everyone to gain access to that. Thank you again for taking the time to first of all, test our ticks, and provide that information. It's fascinating and a little disheartening, but good to know what's what's walking among us. And and figuring out how to protect ourselves. Thanks for having me. It's, it was kind of refreshing to talk to you. Many thanks to Dr. Thangamani and his team. Kaatscast has a brand new website with expanded coverage, links to our sponsors, and a search feature. And you can click the donate button to support this podcast with as little as $1 a month. All this and more at kaatscast.com. Kaatscast is a free bi weekly production of Silver Hollow Audio. So we'll see you again in two weeks. Until then, pull up your socks, cut your grass, and if you do spot a tick, send it up to Syracuse and let us know what you discover. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL