What can be done to prevent tick bites?

And who needs to know this?
18 March 2024

Interview with 

Kayleigh Hansford, UKHSA




What is the plan to keep track of ticks and, more importantly, bring this information to the relevant people and bodies, so that we can all go out and enjoy what’s left of nature. This is part of the rationale behind the Tick Surveillance Scheme, and, to explain it, the UK’s Health and Security Agency's Kayleigh Hansford.

Kayleigh - The Tick Surveillance Scheme was set up in 2005. And essentially what we wanted to do was to digitise our kind of existing knowledge of the distribution of ticks across the UK. And this is important because where we know ticks are present and where people can come into contact with ticks, that's where you get a potential disease transmission risk. It allows us to map and monitor the different tick species that we have in the UK. It can also give us an indication of when they're active and when they're sort of peaking in activity or when their activity periods sort of overlap with when people are out in the environment. Normally when the weather's nice and if we sort of look at the data over time it allows us to start assessing potential changes in distribution of our key tick species. And we're starting to see some of those initial changes in our data sets. Now the other thing that the scheme allows us to do is to detect rare species that we don't always find in the UK. So sometimes these can be imported into our country from animals or people. And with these they bring some novel and different disease risks with them, but ultimately it allows us to have a channel where we can communicate with members of the public about what they're finding as well because people can send things in and we send information back. So it's a good sort of communication channel for us.

Will - Given what we know about the slightly grim way in which humans and animals come into contact with ticks. How is this data collected?

Kayleigh - People can send ticks to us through the post. So anytime anyone comes across the tick, be it they've been on a walk locally, or they might have found a tick on their dog, they can take the ticks off and actually pop them in in an envelope in the post to us and when we ask people to send things in, we ask for information around the data they collected the tick, what host the tick was found on. So was it on themselves, was it on a pet. And the sort of location where they think they picked up the tick. We bring all this information in, we then look at the ticks under a microscope in our labs and identify the different tick species that we found. Enter all of this into a database so we can create these maps and then we send an information email back to the person that sent the tick to us explaining what the species is. And we also share some links to some public health information on those associated risks.

Will - Presumably then that data can also then be fed into larger data studies as well.

Kayleigh - Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So we can start doing things with the data set such as looking at trends in sort of temperature. So we're thinking about climate change. We can also look at the data alongside disease data sets. So we can start to try and potentially link tick exposure to our Lyme disease incidents data. And with that kind of information we can feed and push all of that into our sort of communication with local authorities or other organisations at the local level who might be responsible for raising tick awareness locally based on that evidence that we are kind of generating through the scheme.

Will - So what is it telling you then if this scheme has been in place for almost two decades now, are you starting to see some trends?

Kayleigh - If we look at the data over time, we can see that we have had some expansion in the distribution of our main tick species that we find in the UK. The kind of driving forces or reasons behind this are many. There are multiple sorts of different reasons why we might be seeing this one. It could just be increased awareness and better engagement with the scheme. So more people are sending ticks to us. Other things that could be causing these potential changes are changes in hosts, host distribution, animal distribution in the UK. Potentially deer are really important for feeding ticks. So if deer are moving around and changing their distributions, that's likely going to have an impact as well.

Will - It feels like we've almost got a really unfortunate and perhaps unavoidable scenario as we see sort of an increase in population and we do end up moving more into their territory. If, if Woodland gets teared down to make stuff like housing, are we inevitably going to see an increase in interactions with these as well?

Kayleigh - It's a really important point actually. Anything that we're doing to kind of modify or change the habitat that we're in can have an impact on any different kind of part of the tick-borne disease transmission cycle. So if we're changing the habitat and that has an influence on the hosts that are in the local area that are feeding the ticks, that can ultimately have an impact on the tick population density and also the specific interactions that we have with ticks. Although urbanisation, urban sprawl can put us into potentially closer contact with these sort of more natural habitats where we might find ticks. We've also got the opposite of where we're sort of greening everything. So greening our cities and introducing and increasing and expanding our woodland habitat. So all of these kinds of things could potentially have an impact on future tick borne disease transmission risks.

Will - If that is the case then, what is, so to speak, the plan?

Kayleigh - Some of the key things that we can do are have discussions about ticks and the associated risks. You know, increasing awareness and having those open discussions to make people more aware so that they know if they're in certain spaces where ticks might be present that they need to engage in those sorts of personal protective behaviours, removing ticks quickly, that kind of thing. There's also engagement with different stakeholders. From our perspective, we need to be speaking to people who are sort of working with wildlife, people who are doing these kind of developments, urban development or biodiversity projects so that we can kind of get everybody in the same space to actually talk about what we can do about the potential risks for a tick-borne disease

Will - At a sort of more personal or even local council level. Is there anything that you can provide these people that can sort of help out those who want to go out into the countryside, want to enjoy it, but might have a slight fear of encountering a tick?

Kayleigh - We've worked over the last couple of years to develop our tick awareness toolkit. So this is exactly for local organisations that might want to increase awareness about ticks and Lyme disease or other tick-borne pathogens. And essentially what this toolkit provides is background information on ticks, like sort of tick ecology, biology, lyme disease risks and transmission risks. And it explains to people how you can run local campaigns to engage with your local communities and to identify your local stakeholders to bring everybody together to start raising awareness of ticks.

Will - And it does seem in this instance, with this particular set of diseases and illnesses and perpetrators, that prevention is way easier to manage than cure.

Kayleigh - Exactly. Exactly. And what we're trying to do with these kinds of messages is empower people to actually take on board these personal protective measures that they can do. You can go out and you can still enjoy nature and you can still be out in the countryside. You just need to check for ticks and remove them quickly if you find them.


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