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OVC Research May Help Pinpoint Lyme Disease Hot Spots


April 18, 2022

A new study from researchers at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) tracking Google searches for terms like “Lyme disease” and “ticks” may improve diagnosis and prevention of Lyme disease.

As the disease continues to spread in Canada, this first-ever study linking internet search activity with local infection rates may give public health units a tool to monitor that spread and warn people about Lyme hot spots, said Dr. Olaf Berke, in photo at left, a statistical epidemiology professor in the Department of Population Medicine in the OVC.

“When people search online for a problem, chances are there is a problem,” he said. “If we know from Google Trends that in certain areas there are these ticks, then physicians might take that into account in diagnosing infection.”

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted by blacklegged ticks, which have moved into central and eastern Canada in recent years. It’s the most reported vector-borne disease in the United States and is Canada’s most common tick-borne illness

The team looked at reports of Lyme disease from 28 public health units in southern Ontario between 2015 and 2019. The researchers then compared that information with Google Trends data for the same regions and years.

They found that most infections occurred in eastern Ontario, between Prince Edward County and the Ontario-Quebec border. The same area showed more frequent internet searches for terms such as “Lyme disease,” “ticks” and “tick bites” than other parts of the province.

The study involved first author Maria Kutera, a fourth-year undergraduate student in biological science, and PhD candidate Kurtis Sobkowich. Their paper appeared recently in the journal Environmental Health Review.

Referring to Kutera’s mapping of trends, Berke said, “There was a signal for searches with Lyme diseases that overlapped with where people had been more often infected with Lyme disease.”

Other studies have suggested such a relationship, he said, but this new research provides the first clear link between internet activity and disease prevalence.

Read the entire story on the University of Guelph website.

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