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MSU researchers help develop mobile app to identify potential Lyme disease-carrying ticks

Jean Tsao, stands in a thick forest, smiling at the camera while wearing gear in a backpack, bag and fanny pack.
Kristin Brooks
MSU researcher Jean Tsao contributed to the creation of The Tick App.

Picture this.

You’re walking through the woods when you brush up against some tall grass, or maybe you wandered off trail momentarily.

Close up of a blacklegged tick on a leaf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Blacklegged ticks like this can transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

You head home, but the next day, you notice a black speck on your arm. It’s a tick.

Beyond the gross-out factor you start to wonder if it might make you sick.

Emily Dinh, a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says the encounters people are having with ticks are becoming more common.

That's as the state’s tick population has been on the rise, including numbers of the American dog tick and the blacklegged tick.

“That blacklegged tick is something that we’re concerned about and seeing a greater distribution of throughout the state of Michigan ... That is the tick that can transmit Lyme Disease,” Dinh said.

In 2021, the state health department reported nearly half of Michigan’s counties now had a known riskof Lyme disease for people and animals.

Map of Michigan counties showing a handful of counties lacking information, a large group of counties with a potential  risk for Lyme disease and a slightly larger group of counties with known risk for Lyme disease
Michigan Department of Human and Health Services
This map from 2021 shows where the state has identified ticks carrying Lyme disease.

Ticks are typically found in wooded and brushy areas but can even show up in suburban yards.

“The most important thing to be aware of is where ticks are, so ticks like shady, moist areas in woody, grassy locations," she said. "Especially in the warmer months of April through September but sometimes into October as well because ticks can be active when the temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit."

Barry O’Connor is a tick expert at the University of Michigan Zoology Museum. He cites a rise in temperatures as a possible reason for this increased risk.

“We’ve certainly seen changes in the distribution of several species of ticks moving northward over the years as temperatures have become warmer.”

A woman in a lab coat and gloves examines a vial in a lab.
Olivia Pappenheimer
Olivia Pappenheimer, a research student at MSU, looking at a tick in vial that she will extract DNA from.

According to the state, average yearly temperatures have increased two to three degrees in the past two decades.

Because of these growing concerns about the pests both in Michigan and across the country, a group of researchers from universities across the U.S. decided to create a mobile app, simply called The Tick App.

Michigan State University professor Jean Tsao explains the app allows scientists to learn more about where ticks are and what people are doing to keep themselves safe from them. She’s part of the group that helped develop the digital portal.

“It’s a mobile health app that is both a research tool as well as an outreach tool" she said.

When someone downloads it, they are prompted to fill out a 10-minute survey about potential risk factors.

“We really wanted to understand, if possible, when and where and doing what kind of activities people are doing to expose themselves to ticks."

She adds users are also able to take a picture of a tick and submit it to the app. The research team is able to identify it within 24 hours.

“They have a lot of reliable information all collated into one area that can tell you about what a tick is, what the various of species of ticks are that you’re likely to contact in the area that you live and what are prevention measures that you can take,” Tsao said.

To avoid ticks, Tsao recommends people wear bug repellent and long clothing outside.

After returning home, a full-body tick check and shower is also ideal.

Tsao says the team is working to use artificial intelligence to make tick identification faster and more accurate.

She’s hopeful with this advancement, the app may one day be used by healthcare workers as a diagnostic tool.

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