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OVC Graduate Students Advance Knowledge On Ticks and Tick Borne Disease Surveillance

Photo of a tick on a blade of grass (IStock credit _Kerrick)Ticks are small, parasitic arachnids that feed on the blood of humans or animals as a part of their life cycle. Recently, Canada has been experiencing rapid changes in the prevalence and distribution of these parasites, as well as increased spread of tick-borne diseases.

Several tick species pose a risk to human and animal health as they can transmit pathogens through their bite, which cause illnesses like Lyme disease. Monitoring the changing distribution of tick species in Canada, as well as tracking the incidence of tick-borne diseases, can help to inform prevention methods that better protect human and animal health.

During Lyme Disease Awareness Month, we are highlighting four graduate students at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) whose research focuses on Lyme disease and tick populations.

Cyril Akwo, a PhD candidate in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine.Cyril Akwo, a PhD candidate in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, is focused on developing and evaluating a ‘One Health’ approach to tick and tick-borne disease surveillance in Canada.

The bite of a blacklegged tick can transmit Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterium that causes Lyme disease in humans and some animals. The geographic range of blacklegged ticks is expanding, causing Lyme disease to rapidly emerge across Canada. The risk of an individual’s exposure to ticks and the subsequent contraction of Lyme disease is now present in almost all Canadian provinces, with the level of risk varying depending on the region.

Akwo plans to address the increasing rates of Lyme disease in Canada by providing an evidence based, One Health approach to tick surveillance in Canada. His aim is to develop a new framework to help public health departments as well as researchers better monitor and control ticks, tick-borne diseases, and the risk of contracting Lyme disease across the country.
Read more about Cyril Akwo’s research.

Sydney Dewinter, an MSc candidate in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine.Sydney Dewinter, an MSc candidate in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, is studying the expanding range of the Ixodes species across Canada to provide up-to-date regional data on distribution of the Ixodes tick species, as well as infestation patterns of several tick species found on Canadian companion animals.

Dewinter is analyzing data collected from the Canadian Pet Tick Survey, which ran from April 2019 to March 2020. Ticks were collected from companion animals and submitted by veterinary clinics across Canada for tick species identification.

Dewinter hopes her work will help to inform the public of tick ‘hot spots’ so that anyone visiting or living in these regions may take the appropriate preventative measures to prevent tick bites. Her research will also inform veterinary and public health professionals on tick risk data specific to their location. This will allow for more regionally-appropriate recommendations such as increased protective clothing for people and specific preventative medications for dogs and cats.
Learn more are Sidney Dewinter’s research.

Grace Nichol, a master’s student in OVC’s Department of Population MedicineGrace Nichol, a master's student in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, has participated in two research projects on Lyme disease in Canada, and is currently completing her master’s thesis on Dermacentor tick range expansion in the western Canadian provinces.

Nichol’s first research project focused on assessing the knowledge, attitudes and practices of Canadian veterinarians regarding Lyme disease in dogs by surveying almost 200 veterinarians across the country.

Nichol’s second project is ongoing and focused on isolating Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, from ticks collected off dogs in Ontario to identify which strain types of the bacteria are currently present in Ontario. This research, led by OVC faculty Drs. Katie Clow and Scott Weese, and Joyce Rousseau of OVC’s Department of Pathobiology, will examine the potential relationship between strain-type and clinical signs observed in dogs, as well as help to identify strains of B. burgdorferi that are present regionally.

As part of her master’s thesis, Nichol’s current research focuses on the range expansion of Dermacentor tick species in the western Canadian provinces. She is using data collected from the Canadian Pet Tick Survey, a national survey from April 2019 to March 2020, that collected ticks from companion animals, submitted by veterinary clinics across Canada.
Read more about Grace Nichol’s research.

Emily Robinson, an MSc student in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine.Emily Robinson, an MSc student in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, is assessing spatial and temporal patterns of the blacklegged tick (how patterns change over space and time) as well as Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria in Ontario.

Robinson’s work is building on previous research co-authored by OVC’s Drs. Katie Clow, Claire Jardine, and David Pearl, which demonstrated that blacklegged ticks were spreading northward Ontario between 2014 and 2016. The data for her research project was collected via tick dragging, a form of active surveillance that consists of dragging large flannel sheets over vegetation where ticks might be, which was conducted at sites in southern, eastern and central Ontario in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Of those ticks collected by dragging, blacklegged ticks were identified and removed to be tested for the presence of Borrelia burgdorferi, as well as other tick-borne pathogens.

Robinson’s work provides up-to-date results on blacklegged tick distribution and Borrelia burgdorferi prevalence at sites in Ontario, which is foundational knowledge to better understand the spread of Ontario’s blacklegged ticks.
Learn more about Emily Robinson’s research.