I had the opportunity to talk to Anna Pasternak, who is a graduate student researcher studying vector-borne illnesses in the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology. She is part of the Kentucky Tick Surveillance Program, a partnership between University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Public Health. Most horse communities are aware of mosquito- and tickborne diseases that affect horses, but Pasternak advocates for increased awareness by people. She and I talked about the research she has been doing, her interest in One Health and why we need to have greater awareness of the dangers of vector-borne illness.

Anna Pasternak

Can you tell me where you are in your research studies, and how you got interested in ticks and mosquitos?

As a member of the Kentucky Tick Surveillance Program, I collect ticks from around the state and test them for certain pathogens that are causing major tick-borne diseases here in Kentucky. Currently, we’re in the second year of the program. When I came to UK, I had a preexisting interest in the links between human/animal health and insects—sometimes referred to as One Health— from working with my previous entomology professor, Dr. Kelly Johnson, from Ohio University, while also working as a mosquito surveillance intern at the local Athens County Health Department. When I came to UK and learned that Kentucky had never had a tick surveillance program, I had this great opportunity to help build a system that could potentially bridge a better understanding of how ticks play their role into One Health. It’s been super successful, and we’ve been finding a lot of interesting things.

Why should we be worried? What diseases could we get? How and when would we be most likely to get a vector-borne illness?

I don’t think anyone should necessarily be worried, but instead, should be aware. Ticks and mosquitoes are something that you just have to live with where we are, and I don’t think that they, nor the fear of what they can vector, should keep people from enjoying the outdoors.

In Kentucky, we have three species of tick that you’ll run into often—the Lone star tick, the American dog tick and the Blacklegged tick, as well as other species like the Brown dog tick and even the Gulf coast tick. The most common tick-borne diseases reported in Kentucky are Spotted fever rickettsiosis, ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease, but these species of ticks can also carry other diseases like tularemia and anaplasmosis. Several of these diseases don’t only affect people; they are a risk to livestock and pets as well.

Tick activity peaks during the summer months, so that is the time of year when you are most likely to get bitten by a tick and therefore develop a tick-borne disease. However, one of our species, the Blacklegged tick, remains active throughout the winter months as long as temperatures are above freezing, so it’s important to always check yourself if you’re in an area you think ticks may be, regardless of the time of year. As far as weather goes, tick activity and humidity hold a positive correlation, because the humidity protects them from drying out. As anyone here can tell you, Kentucky can get really humid, which is all the more reason to be aware of ticks while outdoors.

How can we protect ourselves and be vigilant against mosquito or tick bites?

The best way to protect yourself is to cover up and use deterrent. If you’re in areas where mosquitoes and ticks are likely to be, it’s smart to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and then apply an insect repellant like Deet or permethrin. It’s very important to follow the instructions on the insecticides, as permethrin should not be applied directly to your skin. For animals, using a tick preventative does wonders for preventing ticks in the first place, and keeping fields and lawns mowed and getting rid of leaf litter and grass build up will prevent ticks from hanging around.

If we get a bite and suspect illness, what symptoms should we be looking for, and if we visit the doctor, how do we make sure we are screened for the correct diseases?

Most of the vectored diseases you get from ticks and mosquitoes will leave you with flu-like symptoms—body and headaches, fatigue, nausea, etc.—anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after the bite. With Lyme disease, most cases will manifest as a rash resembling a bullseye. With Spotted fever rickettsiosis, a.k.a. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the rash begins as small red bumps on the wrists, palms or feet and then grows inward to the body. However, because not every disease will present a rash, it’s very important to monitor your health in the weeks following a bite and to contact your physician if you begin to feel sick.

The best way to determine what to watch for after experiencing a bite is to know what bit you. Certain species will only carry certain diseases—this goes for both mosquitoes and ticks. For example, Lyme disease is only vectored by the Blacklegged tick in the entire eastern United States, but many people will see a tick and worry immediately about Lyme disease. By educating yourself about what may be in your area and the basic symptoms of those diseases, you can really help your doctor arrive at a diagnosis and provide proper treatment. Better yet, keep the tick that bit you for later identification if needed.

What sort of research plans does your group have? How will you be rolling them out?

Right now, with the program only in its second year, we’re mainly focused on determining population ranges of the different tick species in Kentucky as well as what diseases they’re carrying.

In the future, I’d like to expand the list of pathogens that we test for and get some local health departments involved with collecting ticks in their respective counties. Additionally, we’re in the midst of beginning some tick education programs for the public, which I think will really help in getting the information about vectors and vector diseases out there.

With all the data collected, I’m working with some individuals from UK’s College of Public Health to map everything out so that someone can look at the mapand see, for example, where Blacklegged tick populations are located throughout the state and where the ones infected with the bacteria causing Lyme disease have been found. Once these maps are done, we’re going to make them open for public access for anyone to view.

How often do you recommend checking for ticks? What is the correct way to check?

The best time to check for ticks is whenever you remember to do so. I really don’t think you can check yourself too often. Adult ticks are only a few millimeters big when unfed, while nymphs and larvae are only one or ½ a millimeter so they can be easy to miss if you don’t take the time to check. I recommend starting at your feet, as ticks will likely be closer to the ground, and move up the body.

If you find one attached, the only safe way is to remove the tick with a set of tweezers by grabbing as close to the skin as you can and pulling straight up, no twisting or bending. If you have pets that go indoors and outdoors, it’s important to make sure they don’t have anything hitchhiking into your house—some ticks can survive up to two years without a meal, meaning they can hide out in your home for quite some time without precautions.

In what ways are they transported to different places, and potentially, to our bodies? Can we break that pathway of transmission, or do we just need greater awareness?

Farming equipment is actually a major way ticks are transported. They’re attracted by the carbon dioxide and heat given off and will cling on in hopes of a meal. I think the way to break that pathway is by being aware and checking your equipment before moving from one field to another. Ticks are also believed to move around on the host—this goes back to properly checking—and so checking anyanimals you may transport can potentially stop the spread.

Most people don’t think of ticks and mosquitoes as serious dangers. Do we have that wrong?

In hopes of getting a better idea of how tick-borne diseases affect Kentuckians, I’ve reached out to several people around the state and talked with them about their experiences. I’ve spoken with victims of Lyme disease who’ve lost the ability to walk and suffer neurological complications like memory loss because they were improperly treated. Sadly, there seem to still be physicians who don’t consider Lyme disease as a possibility when treating patients suffering after a tick bite. When something as complicated as Lyme disease gets into the later stages, it can become very difficult to treat and so catching it early is crucial. Moreover, some individuals have dealt with delusional parasitosis and are left experiencing much more than just physical illness.

Which disease/vector worries you the most, and why?

The Lone star tick is the worst, in my opinion. It has the potential to carry a long list of diseases, is the most common tick in Kentucky according to what we’ve found so far and is the most aggressive tick here. Most ticks are pretty lazy and will wait until you get close enough for them to cling onto you, but Lone star ticks are “active questers,” meaning once they sense a host, they’ll orient themselves and march toward it. Also, this is the tick responsible for alpha-gal, or red-meat, allergy which, as far as I know, has no real treatment.

Karin Pekarchik, MS, senior extension associate for distance learning and founder of the UK Female Equestrian Health and Wellness Community of Practice, provided this information.