The pandemic has led Albertans to enjoy the great outdoors in record numbers while simultaneously shutting down the province’s submit-a-tick program.
This is unfortunate timing because the Lyme disease-carrying black-legged tick is a growing problem in Canada, even in places that it would traditionally not be found in such as the Prairies. But the good news is a new tick tracking service, eTick, will be launching in Alberta in late spring.
Over the past three years, Alberta has monitored ticks through the submit-a-tick program, where ticks could be mailed in or dropped off at the Alberta Health Services Environmental Health Office for testing and identification.
Since starting, that program had seen increased submissions of ticks to be tested. Last year, the number of ticks increased to 2,870 from the 960 sent in 2013.
Of those, 63 were capable of carrying Lyme disease and three tested positive for the bacteria.
However, the pandemic put the project on pause.
“All available resources and staff at Alberta Health are helping to manage and monitor the pandemic, and the tick program was paused,” read a statement by Zoë Cooper, a spokesperson for Alberta Health.
Cooper’s saidAlbertans are still able to physically submit a tick to their health care provider for identification and assessment in the meantime.
But this process can sometimes take months to complete and that delay will take place against the backdrop of growing numbers of campers and hikers in the spring.
A statement by Alberta Parks read, “last year was the busiest camping season in Alberta to date, and we’re expecting similar numbers in 2021.”
Dr. Maarten Voordouw, an assistant professor of veterinary microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan with 10 years of tick and tick-borne disease research under his belt, said if more people are out camping and hiking, they’re more likely to encounter ticks.
Ticks in Alberta
One place you’re likely to stumble upon ticks in Alberta is in Edmonton’s river valley, where it’s warm and relatively humid, said Janet Sperling, who is involved with the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.
According to an interactive map from the Government of Alberta, several ticks in the Edmonton river valley were submitted in 2019, with one testing positive for the Lyme virus.
But the problem is we can’t rely on these numbers because we don’t really know the tick populations or how many Albertans have been bitten.
“We know a lot of people get a tick bite, but we don’t know exactly how many people because nobody’s keeping track,” Sperling said.
And, just because black-legged ticks, the species of tick capable of carrying and transmitting Lyme disease to humans, have not been shown to reproduce in the Prairies, doesn’t mean they’re not here.
“We’re still trying to determine in Saskatchewan, and I think the same is true for Alberta, whether there are established black-legged tick populations,” Voordouw said.
They’re coming by animals
There are a few theories to explain the tick population in Alberta. Studies have been conducted that show ticks travelling to Canada and the Prairies on migratory hosts.
Canada’s Public Health Agency reported somewhere between 50 million to 175 million hitch-hiking black-legged ticks landing in Canada from migrating birds flying north each year.
Black-legged ticks live approximately two years, so a week-long flight and a meal is no big deal.
“The ticks are hearty, and they can survive. And then they’ll quest the following year looking for blood,” Voordouw said.
Besides migratory birds, Sperling said deer might be one reason black-legged ticks are popping-up more in Alberta.
“The deer could start off in, say Winnipeg, and then as they walk across through Saskatchewan, they’re coming through the river valley,” Sperling said.
Ticks are also showing up in new Canadian locations, as they warm due to climate change.
According to Dr. George Chaconas, a member of the Canadian Lyme disease research network, “As our winters are getting less harsh there’s no question there that it’s easier for the tick to set up.”
“I think it’s just a matter of time until the moister areas in the province begin having stable populations of infected ticks. It can certainly happen,” Sperling said.
Given the changing locations and populations of these potential eight-legged disease-carriers, an effective, active tracking method is important.
And that’s where the four-year-old Quebec-born federally-funded program called eTick comes in, allowing citizens in partnered provinces to snap photos of ticks they found.
This differs from traditional mail-in methods and Alberta’s submit-a-tick program, where ticks must be physically submitted in order to be identified.
Citizens can send images through a handy smartphone app or online and receive species identification within 24-hours, even over weekends. This is a far cry from the weeks or months worried Canadians would wait long periods after being nibbled on by an unidentified insect.
Although eTick does not test for diseases, like Lyme, the vast majority of ticks submitted are not species capable of transmitting them. That means eTick efficiently updates the user with information that quickly sets their mind at ease.
If it is a black-legged tick, or is suspected to be, the user will be given direction on how they should follow up, enabling them to be informed and act fast.
Pierre Chuard, a biologist and adjunct professor at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., and project manager of eTick, said the program’s main benefits are tick awareness, passive surveillance of tick presence, a triaging effect for the local health care system and near-immediate results to the user.
Although this new tool makes submissions and responses to and from the user easier than it’s ever been before, there are a few challenges with relying solely on people submitting ticks they found to determine the prevalence of those insects.
This passive surveillance is different from active surveillance — a more hands-on approach, Chaconas said. Active surveillance gives a better understanding of tick populations as researchers would head out to where ticks are and gather information, instead of relying on passive surveillance from the general public.
With a passive method, you will get more submissions at times and in places where people are. Higher numbers may appear in provinces with higher human populations — obviously, this does not entirely reflect the tick population.
With eTick being a novel, new service, it’s likely that will also cause an influx in submissions.
So researchers such as Chuard are looking for proportions of ticks growing or moving to new locations, not the density.
Still a good choice
It’s also important to note that, right now, the app only tracks ticks, not Lyme disease. However, this gives researchers a fast and detailed view of new or changing proportions of black-legged ticks, identifying candidates for active surveillance.
Voordouw has used coordinates provided through eTick to conduct active surveillance of black-legged ticks in Saskatchewan.
He’ll go into the field with a rope tied to a dowel that has a large white cloth draped off of it. The dragging fabric mimics an animal moving through the vegetation, causing the ticks to grapple onto the fabric with their hook-like feet.
The captured ticks provide researchers information about species, disease, density, reproduction and more.
With the increase in campers in Alberta’s parks and the absence of the submit-a-tick program, there is a need for eTick, although it’s not here quite yet.
But, understanding the pressure COVID-19 puts on the healthcare system, Voordouw said he’s grateful for programs like eTick in Saskatchewan, where it launched just under a year ago.
Cooper writes, eTick will be launched later this spring, and all updates to the tick surveillance program are available on the Alberta Health website.
This story appears in our upcoming May/June print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.