Season 2

20. Tick testing, active surveillance, and participatory science, with Dr. Vett Lloyd from Mount Allison University

Students walk on campus at Mount Allison, beside the Looking at Lyme logo.

This week, we are very excited to speak with one of Canada’s foremost tick and Lyme disease researchers, Dr. Vett Lloyd, who heads up a dynamic research team at Mount Allison University in Sackvillle, New Brunswick. Her curiosity, passion for community and collaboration and sense of humour have endeared her to her colleagues and her community. 

Dr. Lloyd recalls her initiation into the world of Lyme disease when she removed a black legged tick from her shoulder after doing some gardening. She contacted her local public health department and was informed that there were no ticks in New Brunswick. She sent the tick to be tested, but when she followed up with public health, she was told that because there were no ticks in her area, they had disposed of it. Fortunately, Dr. Lloyd received advice from colleagues in western Canada and sought treatment for the symptoms of Lyme disease which followed the tick bite. It was after that personal encounter with Lyme disease that she shifted her research in molecular biology from cancer to studying ticks.

Find out more about our newly published Educators’ Resource!

Tick testing in the lab

Although most of us cringe at the idea of receiving ticks in the mail, this is how Dr. Lloyd starts a typical day in her lab. She is currently working on a community science initiative in which people send ticks they find on themselves or preferably on pets or other animals. Her research team tests the ticks for various pathogens, a process which takes about two weeks. She notes the importance of ensuring ticks are dead before mailing them, and recommends placing them in the freezer for several days prior to shipping. For shipping, Dr. Lloyd also recommends placing the ticks in two containers, noting that the containers found in the CanLyme tick kits work well for that purpose. Dr. Lloyd requests information about the geographical location of the tick collection and an email address from the sender so that she and her team can notify the sender of the test results.

Dr. Lloyd also describes the active tick surveillance done by her lab, in which people dressed in protective clothing walk through tick habitat dragging pieces of flannel. She strongly believes in community partnerships and participation which includes hunters, foresters and pet owners who send her ticks they’ve found on animals. In her local community, even cats play a role in data collection by catching rodents! Her team collects rodents from local cat owners as part of her research.

Community engaged science

“Science is not something that happens in secret laboratories buried in bunkers somewhere, and it’s not in an ivory tower. In order to be relevant, science and scientists are part of society and we have to work with the communities in which we live.”

Dr. Vett Lloyd

She also promotes community involvement in her research with Lyme disease patients. She notes that many Canadian Lyme patients are unable to receive adequate treatment in Canada, and have sought treatment in the US. After determining that many patients reported health improvements following Lyme disease treatment in the US, her research team designed a study to objectively and anonymously examine the health records of patients from a US Lyme specialist and found that the data supported the earlier findings. Canadian patients seen by a US Lyme specialist were indeed getting better.      

Sarah revisits the question about tick testing options and learns that tick testing within the healthcare system varies over time and between regions. She notes that her lab is currently testing ticks for several types of Borrelia and notes that those who simply want to know the species of tick they find can send a photo of the tick to her or to etick.ca. For those interested in finding out if the tick is infected with pathogens, she refers people to Geneticks.ca, a private Canadian tick testing lab. Dr. Lloyd collaborates with Geneticks researcher, Justin Wood, to enhance current tests and also to create new tests.

Climate change and tick distribution

Students walk on campus at Mount Allison, beside the Looking at Lyme logo.

“The point of science is to help people, so if you’re not working with people, you won’t know what people need.”

Dr. Vett Lloyd

Another aspect of her research involves understanding where ticks can be found, and points out the role of climate change in tick distribution. Ticks are being found in different areas because of changing habits of the animals that carry them, and because they are better able to survive through the winter. She notes that although there are peak seasons for ticks in the spring and fall, ticks can often be found year round. She encourages listeners to incorporate a tick check into their nightly routine. She also points out that researchers are on the lookout for European strains of Borrelia that may have been introduced by travel through people, birds or other animals. A concern for patients and researchers alike is the fact that North American testing may not pick up these foreign pathogens.  

“I think we have a major hurdle within the human health system. There’s always been a lag between scientific knowledge and its incorporation into any kind of applied setting.”

Dr. Vett Lloyd

Dr. Lloyd refers listeners to the Tick Information Portal and her website for further information. She also recommends veterinarians as a source of information about ticks and tick borne diseases. Public health websites are also available, although she has found that their information is often outdated. In the realm of human health, she is concerned about the time lag between new research and its application in the healthcare system. She has seen first hand how this delay affects patients, their families and communities. She also points out that there are two different sets of treatment guidelines and would like to see a study which directly compares outcomes for patients being treated with either set of guidelines. 

Thank you Dr. Lloyd for sharing your insight, research, and expertise! We look forward to hearing more about your research in the future.

Related resources

“You can encounter a tick pretty much at any time, it’s just that the chances of encountering it are higher in the spring and higher in the fall, but if you are in a high tick area, really you basically just have to incorporate a tick check into your nightly routine.”

Dr. Vett Lloyd

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