UArizona researchers launch the Great Arizona Tick Check

A close up image of a male brown dog tick on green leaf

A male brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus. Brown dog ticks are the primary vector for Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Arizona.

CDC/ James Gathany

Think about ticks and what comes to mind? Perhaps red bull's-eyes, Lyme disease and the eastern United States, but Arizona is home to a lesser-known tick-borne disease – Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It's the deadliest tick-borne disease in the world, and as cases are on the rise in much of the Southwest, researchers are issuing a unique call to the public: Send us your ticks.

The Great Arizona Tick Check will help researchers at the University of Arizona build the first-ever database of tick distribution and correlated disease in Arizona.

Fueled by a nearly $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the effort is a collaboration between UArizona Cooperative Extension, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"The central tick identification and pathogen testing program is an effort to create a much-needed map of what tick species are where in the state," said Kathleen Walker, who will lead pathology and genetic testing of ticks received from the public through her role as an extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Entomology. "The Arizona Department of Health Services will then be able to have information on their website and in their records to help inform public health efforts around the state."

"This is what we call community-based participatory surveillance. Because going and sampling all across the state is impossible, this allows us to get ticks from a much broader area and engage people in science," said Kacey Ernst, an epidemiologist in the Zuckerman College of Public Health and a partner on the project. "People will be asked to send us ticks if they find them on themselves, pets or their surrounding environment. They will also get educational information about ticks and the diseases they carry."

Tracking vector-borne diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be a challenge. There's tremendous diversity in habitats in Arizona, and ticks – as well as the diseases they carry – are changing very rapidly in North America, Walker said. This is due to several factors, including environmental change, as well as the transportation of infested animals across state borders.  

"We do know that the vector for Lyme disease and the pathogen was found in northwestern Arizona 30 years ago, but no one's gone back since," Walker said. "Has it moved? Has it spread? Is it gone? We don't know. If there are new disease risks that weren't there before, or if there are old disease risks that people forgot about – that's kind of what we want to map out in the end."

Deadly but treatable

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a deadly but treatable bacterial disease spread through the bite of infected ticks. In Arizona, the primary vector is the brown dog tick, and while dogs themselves cannot spread the disease, the ticks they carry can.    

"We know that we have the brown dog tick, and we know that it carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Arizona," Walker said. "But what we don't know is the extent of this problem."

Between 4,000 and 6,000 cases of spotted fever, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are reported in the United States each year, according to the CDC. Symptoms are often nonspecific, including fever, headache, nausea, muscle pain or rash.

"If you get antibiotics within five to seven days, you're fine. But it has a much greater potential for fatality than Lyme disease," Walker said. "If you find a tick that has bitten into you or a member of your family, don't panic. Simply remove it, clean the site, put the tick on a piece of tape or in a small container, and send it to me."

Walker stresses that a tick bite is a problem, not an emergency.

"If you develop a rash or fever within 30 days, seek medical attention and remember to tell your doctor about a recent bite, because that's useful information that can really help a physician narrow down causes or include a test for tick-borne pathogens," she said.

The Great Arizona Tick Check will help researchers gather important information on tick distribution and potential disease and is not meant to provide medical diagnosis.

"People who've contributed ticks to the program shouldn't wait to hear back from our lab before seeking medical attention if they develop fever or rash after a tick bite," Walker said.

Knowledge is power

Once the program is fully up and running, the research team hopes to inform particular counties and rural areas around the state if Rocky Mountain spotted fever is present or potentially prevalent in a community.

"The more people that participate, the more likely we will be able to provide good data and information back to the public," Ernst said. "Our hope is to understand the distribution of the tick species and what pathogens they may harbor."

Often, public health efforts are a difficult balance of informing the public of potential risks without fanning panic, Ernst said.  

"When something is really unknown, it causes fear," she said. "But if people have a basic understanding of the system, know how to identify and remove ticks, and also recognize signs and symptoms of diseases that warrant medical attention, not only is that able to save lives, but it is empowering. Knowledge is power."

When it comes to vector-borne diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the researchers are focused on helping the public understand what kind of vectors are here and what diseases they potentially transmit.

"We want to help people recognize the vectors and symptoms of the diseases," Ernst said. "It is important to couple this with information on prevention – telling people about a problem but not giving them the tools to avoid or mitigate exposure isn't very helpful."

As part of the CDC grant, the research team will work with Arizona communities most impacted by tick-borne diseases to provide education and prevention workshops.

Walker and Ernst have worked together for nearly 15 years on many different projects, including efforts focused on mosquitos and West Nile virus and Zika virus transmission in the metropolitan Phoenix area and U.S.-Mexico border communities. Their research partnership combines two critical areas of expertise, Ernst said.

"Without a fundamental knowledge of the ecology of the vector, public health is unable to make good decisions about how to control disease spread," she said.  "And without a connection to the people and community health, entomology and vector control efforts would have less impact."

Information on how to safely remove a tick and how to send it to the researcher team can be found on the Great Arizona Tick Check website.

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