Newswise — Nathan Nieto, a professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University who studies microbes transmitted from ticks to humans, said this summer is not unusual for ticks in the region: they’re out there, they will bite and they can transmit serious diseases. However, the season does not appear to be worse than normal, and much of the interaction between humans and the small blood-sucking arachnids can be minimized or avoided by taking simple precautions.

Nieto’s research focuses on how the evolution of infectious diseases in wild animals translates into the transmission of those diseases from wild animals to humans and domestic animals. His lab includes a partnership with the Bay Area Lyme Foundation to provide free tick testing for ticks throughout North America. The testing looks for six infectious diseases, and the crowd-sourced information will be used to gain a greater understanding of tick-borne illnesses throughout the United States. They were budgeted to test 2,400 ticks in 2016 and ended up testing about 10,000 ticks that year. They are on track to test 20,000 ticks in 2017.

He has published numerous studies on tick-borne pathogens and how they spread into a variety of species.

Expert: Nathan Nieto, assistant professor of biological sciences, (928) 523-8034 or [email protected] 

Talking points

  • Two types of ticks are commonly found in northern Arizona: the soft tick (Ornithodoros hermsi), which can carry relapsing fever, usually picked up from infected chipmunks; and the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), which is a novel vector for Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This is most often seen in areas with large numbers of free-roaming dogs.
  • Relapsing fever is a bacterial infection that causes a severe fever and body aches several days after being bitten. The body typically is able to respond and reduce the bacterial load in the body, but it returns a week or so later. Although most don’t experience ongoing problems, it is possible to repeatedly relapse until the disease is treated with antibiotics.
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be deadly. The bacteria live on the inside of the cells that line arteries and veins and can lead to a rash, internal hemorrhaging and multiple organ failure.
  • Lyme-carrying ticks are endemic in northern California and the foothills of Sierra Nevadas and have been reported in the Hualapai Mountains outside of Kingman, Arizona, although Nieto’s team has not found any.
  • Most people who report finding ticks on themselves, families or pets were exposed in yards and areas close to their normal environments, not as a result of outdoor recreation.
  • To protect:
    • People: Pay attention when in environments where ticks are likely to live, such as forests or areas with high grass or weeds, and thoroughly examine yourself and family members after leaving these areas.
    • Pets: Use a tick repellent on dogs and do frequent tick checks, particularly around the pads on their paws, ears, neck and underneath their legs.
    • Yards: Keep yards free of brush, relocate woodpiles and compost bins away from the house and be vigilant about rodents getting into the house and garage, which could be a way ticks get inside.
  • To remove ticks, use tweezers or forceps to grasp the tick firmly as close to its head as possible and pull it out, being careful not to twist or squeeze it. Keep the dead tick in case of later illness or send it to Nieto’s lab, which can identify the type of tick and test it for pathogens. This is not a diagnosis, but may help a doctor diagnose a tick-related illness.
  • “You want to get it all at the same time. Don’t burn it off, tear it off or twist it; often that results in ripping the head off. When you rip the head off, it essentially vomits all of its goopy grossness into you.”
  • There are not established best practices for treating tick infestations, which is why biologists encourage individuals to take action. Nieto, in collaboration with biologist Dan Salkeld of Colorado State University and others throughout the nation, are looking at the feasibility of using acaricides or vaccinating the hosts that ticks typically feed on, but so far have not found effective mass treatments.
  • “We don’t have a lot of tools in the toolbox. We’re trying to figure this out.”