I’ve often said my career is one big field trip. But if you told me I’d be combing the streets and forest preserves of Chicago with veterinarians, doctors, and researchers with a passion for ticks, I would have called you crazy. Nothing creeps me out like ticks, those eight-legged blood suckers that’ll grab you quicker than a dog grabs a bone. And yet here I was in the Windy City with Dr. Lee Cera and Dr. Jean Dubach with a new gig and an important story to tell.
Dr. Lee Cera is the assistant dean of comparative medicine at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine. Dr. Jean Dubach is a consultant on wildlife genetics working with Dr. Cera. They are part of One Health Chicago, an initiative that is studying the linkages between human health, animal health and ecology.
Their current research focus is tick-borne diseases (TBD) in Chicagoland, a serious health threat to humans, pets and wildlife. We met Friday, November 15 with the One Health team that also includes Loyola Department of Medicine researchers Prakasha Kempaiah and Adinarayana Kunamneni to start laying out a communications strategy for their organization and research based on the interconnected health of everything in our world.
Ticks may seem like trivial pests, but here’s a fact you need to know: two-thirds of all emerging diseases are zoonotic. That is, diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites spread between animals and humans. According to Dr. Cera, a veterinarian and expert in comparative anatomy, the old belief was diseases were not passed between species. Today, because of research and better diagnostics, a wide range of diseases are recognized as spread between species.
“The most commonly known inter-species disease is rabies, which can be passed to humans by infected dogs, cats, bats, raccoons, mice, and other animals,” says Dr. Cera. “Canine distemper has been found in raccoons and even more surprising, among large cats like lions and tigers. The question is, how does this happen?”
The answer gets us back to ticks and something called vector-borne diseases that are transmitted to people and animals by blood-feeding anthropods – the vectors – like ticks, fleas and mosquitoes.
Ticks and the diseases they carry are on the rise in Chicago. Dr. Dubach says climate change is a factor along with the mobility of ticks themselves. “Ticks are carried by birds, mice, raccoons, livestock, and our pets. And they, in turn, carry diseases like Lyme disease, Powassan, and Borrelia that are dangerous for humans. Distance doesn’t seem to be an issue; we’re seeing Lone Star ticks from Texas here in Chicago.”
One Health Chicago is planning a number of major research projects to better understand TBDs in the Windy City. This includes studying animal reservoirs of TBD – raccoons being big tick carriers in Chicago and a focus of Dr. Dubach; developing better diagnostic tests and treatments for TBD; and also more effective ways to control tick populations.
The ultimate goal of this research, however; is an informed public – residents, physicians and veterinarians. And also why they need the help of a professional communicator.
Said Dr. Cera, “Everyone should know what’s in our communities in terms of tick activity and tick-borne diseases. Doctors need to know what to look for in their patients. Vets so they can protect and treat our pets. And you and me – parents, people with pets, those who enjoy the outdoors – we need to know what to do if we get bitten by a tick, a pet has ticks, or if we feel sick and think it might be tick-related.”
Dr. Dubach added another bit of information that underscores the importance of an informed public. And I say this because I thought ticks were a non-issue in the winter.
“This is the time of year mice come into our homes and what do they bring with them?” she asked.
You guessed it. Ticks.
I, for one, am ready to get on this public information campaign. Ticks or no ticks.
First, I’m off to check my dogs….
If you’d like to follow the progress of the One Health Chicago initiative into tick-borne illnesses, drop me a line. It’s going to be an interesting adventure into the inter-connectivity of the health of animals, people, the environment and ticks.