Like many people in B.C., you may be spending a lot of time outdoors this summer, perhaps going hiking, camping, cycling, kayaking or enjoying other recreational activities. When you’re spending time outside, especially in grassy, wooded areas, be on the lookout for ticks.
If you're curious to learn more about where ticks are found and the health risks they can pose to you, your loved ones and your pets, the BCCDC tick team has you covered.
Gathering ticks is a bit of a drag, but for project coordinator Stefan Iwasawa it’s all part of the job.
In order to collect data on ticks, Iwasawa literally drags a blanket through fields, forests or other areas where the parasites are likely to be found.
When Iwasawa spends time in B.C.’s woods collecting ticks, he has to completely cover up.
“Ah, forest bathing,” he says. “What better way to do it than in a head to toe white suit?”
Stefan Iwasawa stands in the forest with his tick suit and flannel blanket.
Iwasawa duct tapes his pants to his shoes or tucks them into his socks, and slowly meanders around, with a white flannel blanket trailing behind him.
“Blessing the forest? Art installation? Is this a crime scene? These are all questions I’ve answered while donning my white suit and hitting the trails looking for ticks,” he says.
Iwasawa's tick surveillance outings are usually at local walking, hiking or biking trails. He selects his spots based on popularity and permissions from different park boards.
Every 25 metres or so he stops to scan the front and back of the cloth he drags behind him and scour his white suit and outer layers, looking for tiny ticks that may have attached to him in search of their next blood meal.
“If I happen to find a surprise guest, I simply pop them into an ethanol bath for later identification, and submission to the lab for pathogen testing.”
Data from the ticks Iwasawa collects help track where different species of ticks are found in B.C. and monitor how many of them are carrying potentially harmful bacteria.
If you spot a tick, either on yourself, another person, a pet, or in the environment, you can take a photo of it and submit it on the eTick website or smartphone app.
Experts will be able to look at the photo and provide more information about what kind of species of tick you’ve found.
Ticks are sent to the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory where scientists identify the tick species and test them for any harmful pathogens that could make people sick. Muhammad Morshed, the program head for Zoonotic and Emerging Pathogens at the Public Health Laboratory has been leading this work since 1997.
Every summer, Morshed and his team test ticks submitted by veterinarians and healthcare providers as part of a passive surveillance program. It's one of the oldest tick surveillance programs in Canada and has worked with other Canadian labs to develop new techniques to advance tick research, such as using whole genome sequencing to characterize Borrelia burgdorferi.
“Tick surveillance allows us to assess the distribution of ticks and the risk of Lyme disease causing bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi," says Morshed. “As well as other key tick-borne bacteria including Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Babesia microti and Rickettsia rickettsii in B.C."
Pictured above: Muhammad Morshed, Program Head for Zoonotic and Emerging Pathogens, works in one of the labs at BCCDC.
The Public Health Laboratory tests ticks both for pathogens that are known to exist in B.C., and pathogens that haven't previously been identified in the province. Morshed hires up to three students each summer to boost the lab's capacity. Recently, they published 17 years worth of data.
“Our long term data clearly showed that the chance of getting exposed to Lyme bacteria is extremely low in this province, and there is clear seasonality of ticks," he added.
“Ticks start increasing in March, peak in April to May and then decline by July, with a small second blip around November. People living in B.C. should especially take precautions against tick bites during these months"
Morshed has also been involved in active tick surveillance, leading the work to collect ticks from local parks and trails in 2013 and 2014, and working with public health veterinarian Erin Fraser and others to introduce the eTick program in B.C. a couple of years ago.
Ticks are most active in spring and early summer, from March to June, but can be found year round on Vancouver Island, on the Gulf Islands and in the Lower Mainland. As climate change continues to affect the environment, ticks are spreading further across B.C. and have been found later in the year in more areas. BCCDC tick experts say they also see another, smaller peak in tick submissions in October and November.
The main human health concern about ticks is that certain species carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi which causes Lyme disease. In B.C., less than one percent of ticks tested carry this bacteria, and there have been between five and 39 Lyme cases reported in B.C. per year since 2006. Fifty-three per cent of these cases were travel-related and came from outside the province.
More recently, ticks in B.C. have also been found to carry bacteria causing anaplasmosis, an illness that causes fever, chills, muscle and head aches, as well as bacteria causing babesiois, a rare but serious blood infection. To date, no human cases of either of these illnesses have been detected in B.C.
Among the ticks found in B.C., Western blacklegged ticks (Ixodes pacificus) can carry the bacteria causing Lyme disease. Dermacentor spp., commonly known as the American dog tick or wood tick, can carry the causative agents of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia.
Pictured right: a close-up of Stefan Iwasawa's protective suit with a tick on it.
Ticks submitted to the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory and eTick show a similar pattern in geographic distribution throughout the province. The majority of human-related tick submissions from Interior Health and Northern Health were Dermacentor spp. (wood ticks), while submissions from humans in Vancouver Coastal Health, Island Health and Fraser Health were mostly Ixodes pacificus (Western blacklegged ticks) and Ixodes angustus ticks.
“Ticks are quite small,” says Mayank Singal, a physician epidemiologist at BCCDC, “a young tick is the size of a poppy seed.”
If you’re headed out on a hike, walking through forested areas or places with tall grass or underbrush, you should check your entire body for ticks when you’re done. Go through the scalp, folds of skin, under your arms and behind your knees. You can also consider wearing long sleeves and tucking your top in your pants and your pants in your socks if you’re heading somewhere you know ticks are often found.
“Have someone help you check hard-to-see areas,” says Singal. “Make sure to check children, pets and outdoor gear for ticks too.”
If you wear light coloured clothing, ticks are easier to spot and it’s a good idea to apply insect repellent that contains DEET or Icaridin to discourage ticks from attaching to you.
The BCCDC tick team recently published a handy infographic on the steps you can take to protect yourself from ticks.
If you find a tick, Singal says you should carefully remove it with tweezers, slowly pulling from the head as close to the skin as possible to ensure you remove the entire body. Alternatively, you can also go to your primary care provider or urgent care center to have the tick removed.
Submit a photo of it to eTick and have it identified. You will be provided with information about the tick species and whether it can carry any pathogens of concern and what steps to take next.
“Place the tick in a small, tight plastic container and keep it in your freezer for 30 days,” says Singal. “Talk to your doctor if you develop a rash or feel unwell and develop symptoms such as fever, headaches, body aches and fatigue, within 30 days of the tick bite.”
In addition to checking yourself and your children after spending time outdoors, you should also give your pets a thorough tick check after they've been out in nature.
BCCDC Public Health Veterinarian Erin Fraser says pets can also be infected and become ill from tick-borne diseases, but not all ticks that bite pets will carry harmful bacteria.
“Feel around their ears, under their collar, down between their legs, including between their toes, and all along their belly,” says Fraser, adding that ticks found on pets can also be photographed and submitted through the eTick app or website for identification.
“Talk to your veterinarian if your pet seems unwell after a tick bite,” she says. “They’ll have more information about managing tick-borne diseases and tick prevention.”
Left: Keren Massey's dog , Winter, out on a hike. Massey is the Lead for Population and Public Health Initiatives and Innovation at BCCDC.
BCCDC is working with Merck Animal Health on a project to test Western blacklegged ticks found on pets and test the ticks for pathogens. Talk to your veterinarian about participating in this project to help us learn more about ticks in British Columbia.
For more information on ticks, visit the BCCDC Lyme Disease page.
The latest Ticks and Tick-borne Disease surveillance report from BCCDC is also available online.