Minnesota researchers hope to find the next tick-borne illness before it finds us

May 13—ROCHESTER — In 2014, researchers discovered a brand new tick-borne illness in patients bit by ticks near Rochester. It was a new type of ehrlichiosis. Like Lyme disease, the illness can be successfully treated with antibiotics if caught early.

Lyme disease and other

tick-borne illnesses

are on the rise in Minnesota. That's mostly because ticks are found in more parts of the state.

"There's been an ongoing expansion in the range of the deer tick," Jon Oliver, assistant professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Although deer ticks are making other areas of the state their home, deer ticks have long been observed in the wooded areas of the Driftless region. The first recorded sighting of a deer tick was in 1909 in Allamakee County in Iowa.

While deer ticks are spreading, the

American dog tick is the most common tick in Minnesota.

The

lone star tick,

a species that is now spreading to some parts of Minnesota, carries a disease that can cause a meat allergy.

Oliver and other

University of Minnesota researchers

want to know what other diseases ticks are carrying. They're beginning a project to collect ticks and test them — not just for diseases they're known to carry such as Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis — but everything.

A new type of testing looks at RNA and DNA sequencing to identify known pathogens and new strains of pathogens.

The testing is "pathogen agnostic," Oliver said.

Instead of waiting for human's to contract an illness to identify it, the research could make it possible to identify pathogens and their treatments before there's a human patient, Oliver said.

The work is still in early stages and will start with common carriers of ticks and their pathogens — mice.

Meanwhile, the arrival of temperatures above 60 degrees means it's tick season now. Experts said it's difficult to predict how prevalent ticks will be this year, but the general trend is tick populations are rising.

The first part of the season generally starts in early to mid-May when adult ticks have come out of hibernation to feed before laying eggs.

The second part of the season begins in late summer when ticks in early development, called nymphs, feed. Depending on weather, ticks from those two stages of development can overlap in activity, said Elizabeth Schiffman, epidemiologist supervisor at Minnesota Department of Health.

The second part of tick season carries more risk for tick-borne illness because the young ticks are small and harder to see on people and pets.

To prevent tick bites, Schiffman recommends using repellents to keep ticks off people and pets when outdoors.

Generally, anyone who is spending enough time outdoors to need sunscreen, should wear an insect repellent too, Schiffman said.

Schiffman recommends using repellent that has been certified by the EPA because it is more likely to be effective and safe for the wearer.

Manicured spaces such as in-town parks with mowed grass and backyards aren't necessarily free of ticks. Animals that carry ticks can shed ticks in mowed and manicured spaces, Schiffman said. Schiffman also recommends checking pets regularly for ticks.

If you do find a tick, health experts recommend removing it gently with tweezers. Schiffman recommends that anyone who has been bit by a tick monitor their health for a few days after finding the tick.

"I know it's probably hard to do nothing, but until there are symptoms, there isn't much you can do," she said.