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Lyme Disease Prevention: The Tick Project

The Tick Project is testing whether neighborhood interventions can prevent tick-borne diseases in our communities. The need for prevention is stronger than ever, with expanding tick populations and more than 300,000 Americans diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.

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Our Work

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Why this research is important 

In the US, more than 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of counties considered Lyme disease hotspots has risen from 69 in 1995 to 260 in 2012. At the same time, the ticks that transmit the disease have doubled their distribution. 

Expanding tick populations, climate change, and forest fragmentation are all expected to contribute to the continued spread of Lyme disease, which has emerged as one of our nation’s most complicated public health crises. In the Northeast, the blacklegged ticks that infect people with Lyme disease can also transmit babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and Borrelia miyamotoi. Co-infections are not uncommon.  

Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose and treat; impacts on victims and their families are often profound. Treatment is also expensive: a recent Johns Hopkins study estimates that tick-borne illnesses cost the US healthcare system up to $1.3 billion annually. Despite human suffering and medical costs, funding for Lyme disease research and prevention remains inadequate. 

While some aspects of Lyme disease treatment are controversial, there is universal agreement on the importance of disease prevention. No human vaccine is available. Prevention hinges on reducing encounters with infected ticks, which relies on a deep understanding of the ecology of Lyme disease. 

The Tick Project site
 


Disease ecologist Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld and his collaborators have amassed one of the most comprehensive field studies on how environmental conditions influence vector-borne disease risk.

The role of the Cary Institute

The Cary Institute is home to the world’s longest running, 25-year study on the ecology of Lyme disease. Long-term research has revealed the complex interactions among infected ticks, environmental conditions, and disease risk. We are leveraging our expertise to lead a large-scale, long-term study implementing interventions that reduce ticks and the diseases they carry.

The five-year project, being carried out in partnership with Bard College, focuses on reducing the number of ticks in people's yards. Key partners include the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health, and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health.

Our goal is to test a community-based prevention model that reduces human exposure to Lyme disease. If it works, this approach would revolutionize Lyme disease prevention.

The Study

What

The study will determine whether two anti-tick interventions, used separately or together, can reduce Lyme disease at the neighborhood level. An ecologically sensitive approach will be used, taking into account the lifecycle of ticks and their interactions with the environment. Interventions will target feeding and questing ticks, with a focus on reducing ticks economically, in a way that is safe for people, pets, and the environment.

Intervention #1: Metarhizium anisopliae is a tick-killing fungus that occurs naturally in forest soils in eastern North America. A strain of this fungus, Met52, has been developed as a commercial product. It can be sprayed on low vegetation using an oil emulsion. Met52 kills ticks that are looking to feed.

Intervention #2: The Tick Control System, TCS®, is a small box that applies a low dose of fipronil, the insecticide in the popular pet product Frontline®, to small mammals as they feed on bait inside the box. Mice and chipmunks are largely responsible for infecting ticks with the Lyme bacterium. Once treated the ticks they carry die.

Why

By targeting ticks, we anticipate that neighborhoods treated with Met52 and TCS interventions will experience reductions in tick numbers and fewer cases of tick-borne diseases.

The study will answer once and for all whether we can prevent cases of tick-borne disease by treating the areas around people's homes. If this approach prevents disease, we will be able to recommend plans that could be immediately adopted by local municipalities, governments, community groups, or neighborhoods.


Project assistants Samantha Calkins and Nicholas Jakubek collecting research samples on the Cary Institute campus.

How

Research will be conducted in a randomized, placebo-controlled study – the scientific gold standard. Treatments involve spraying Met52 and deploying TCS in residential areas. Participating neighborhoods will be randomly assigned one of four treatments: Met52 plus TCS; Met52 plus sham TCS; sham Met52 plus TCS; sham Met52 plus sham TCS.  At the end of the study, participants will learn which treatment their property received.

Placebo controls (shams) are a critical part of well-designed scientific studies. The sham Met52 intervention involves spraying the base liquid, but without fungus spores; the sham TCS treatment applies a fipronil-free liquid to rodents.

Study participants will be asked to report diagnosed cases of tick-borne disease as well as encounters with ticks on people and pets. Field sampling and lab analyses will measure the number of ticks in each neighborhood and whether they are carrying pathogens.

Who

This groundbreaking project will be led by Cary Institute disease ecologist Dr. Richard Ostfeld and Bard College biologist Dr. Felicia Keesing, in partnership with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health, and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. 

When

The study will take five years to complete. In 2016, we are identifying study neighborhoods and recruiting people to participate in the study. We will also estimate the abundance of ticks in a sample of properties before we begin treating them. Tick-killing treatments will be deployed between 2017 and 2020. Impacts of the treatments on ticks and tick-borne diseases will be monitored during this time.

Where

The study will take place in Dutchess County, New York, which is home to some of the nation’s highest rates of Lyme disease incidence. Residents of twenty-four neighborhoods will be recruited. Each neighborhood will consist of 6-10 square blocks and roughly 100 properties.

The selected study neighborhoods have been identified as hotspots for Lyme disease by the research team and their partners at the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. 

FAQs

What is The Tick Project?

The Cary Institute is home to the world's longest running, 25-year study on the ecology of Lyme disease. Our work has revealed environmental factors that influence the prevalence of ticks and Lyme disease. The Tick Project is a new five-year study that will test whether neighborhood-based prevention can reduce human exposure to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. The methods we are testing are simple and safe for people, pets, and the environment.

Who is conducting the research?

The project is led by Cary Institute disease ecologist Dr. Richard Ostfeld and Bard College biologist Dr. Felicia Keesing, in partnership with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York State Department of Health, and the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. 

Where will the study take place?

The study will take place in Dutchess County, New York, which is home some of the nation’s highest Lyme disease infection rates. Residents of twenty-four neighborhoods will be recruited. Each neighborhood will consist of 6-10 square blocks and roughly 100 properties.

How are the study sites chosen?

The selected study neighborhoods have been identified as hotspots for Lyme disease by the research team and their partners at the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health. 

Can my neighborhood participate?

Due to the controlled nature of study, participation is only open to residents of neighborhoods identified by the research team. If you reside within one of the selected neighborhoods, you will be contacted by our staff to discuss your interest in participating in the study.

What is the study testing?

The study will determine whether two tick control interventions, used separately or together, can reduce the number of cases of Lyme disease at the neighborhood level. Interventions will target feeding and questing ticks, with a focus on reducing the number of ticks safely and economically.

Intervention #1: Metarhizium anisopliae is a tick-killing fungus that occurs naturally in forest soils in eastern North America. A strain of this fungus, Met52, has been developed as a commercial product. It can be sprayed on low vegetation where it kills host-seeking (“questing”) ticks.

Intervention #2: The Tick Control System, or TCS®, is a small, baited box that attracts small mammals.  When an animal enters the box it receives a small dose of fipronil, the active ingredient in many tick treatments used on dogs and cats. Fipronil kills ticks on treated animals such as mice and chipmunks, which are largely responsible for infecting ticks with the Lyme bacterium.

How is the research being done?

Research will be conducted in a randomized, placebo-controlled study – the scientific gold standard. Treatments involve spraying Met52 and deploying TCS in residential areas. Participating neighborhoods will be randomly assigned one of four treatments: Met52 plus TCS; Met52 plus sham TCS; sham Met52 plus TCS; sham Met52 plus sham TCS.  At the end of the study, participants will learn which treatment their property received.

Placebo controls (shams) are a critical part of well-designed scientific studies. The sham Met52 intervention involves spraying the base liquid, but without fungus spores; the sham TCS treatment applies a fipronil-free liquid to rodents.

Study participants will be asked to report diagnosed cases of tick-borne disease as well as encounters with ticks on people and pets. Field sampling and lab analyses will measure the number of ticks in each neighborhood and whether they are carrying pathogens.

What will you do with the results?

The study’s outcome will allow us to recommend plans for preventing Lyme disease that could be immediately adopted by local municipalities, governments, community groups, or neighborhoods.

How long will the project run?

The study will take five years to complete. In 2016, we will identify study neighborhoods, carry out community outreach and neighborhood recruitment, and estimate abundance of ticks in a sample of properties before we begin treating them. Tick-killing treatments will be deployed between 2017 and 2020.  Impacts of the treatments on ticks and tick-borne diseases will be monitored during this time.

Where does funding for The Tick Project come from?

A generous gift from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation is kicking off the project. The total cost of this effort, which is the largest and most rigorous ever attempted, is $8.8 million dollars.  The Cary Institute is leading a campaign to raise an additional $3.8 million dollars needed to support a project critical to public health.

How can I make a donation?

If you would like to help fund this important research, you can make an online donation, or contact Olivia van Melle Kamp, Director of Development, at (845) 677-7600 ext. 120 or vanmellekampo@caryinstitute.org

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I have a question about The Tick Project. Who can I contact?

Questions about the project can be emailed to tickproject@caryinstitute.org You can also call (845) 677-7600 ext. 286.

I’m interested in learning more about tick-borne disease prevention, what do you recommend?

In partnership with the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health, Cary Institute disease ecologist Rick Ostfeld developed the online resource:

Science-Based Responses to Commonly Asked Questions About Tick-Borne Disease Prevention

Questions arose from a committee of community stakeholders and answers were informed by an extensive literature review of published scientific studies regarding various prevention methods.

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