34. Mapping ticks in Canada with Justin Wood

CanLyme is excited to kick off May which is Lyme Awareness Month! In this episode, we introduce a Canadian tick map designed by Justin Wood. Justin is the CEO and founder of Geneticks laboratory in Ontario, where he tests ticks from across Canada for many tick-borne pathogens. 

For the past several years, Justin has been planning and developing a platform to share his tick data from across Canada. By removing identifying information and applying a degree of randomization to his data, he is able to add information to the map including tick species, lifestage, pathogens detected, location, and type of host the tick was found on. This data can be retrieved in various ways depending on the interest of the reader. For example, if someone is only interested in finding out about Blacklegged ticks, that data can be explored by applying a filter which excludes other types of ticks. 

“One of the ideas we had when we were building Genticks was that all the data that we would collect would then go back out there and become publicly available to anybody in Canada or around the world.”

Justin Wood

Data differences in regions and seasons

When compiling the data, Justin recognized differences not only between provinces, but also between health units and regions within provinces. He wanted to be able to present the data both generally, painting a picture of ticks and pathogens in Canada, and more specifically, by province and region. The data he has collected from ticks confirms that, in Canada, ticks and tick-borne diseases are more prevalent in prime resting areas for migratory birds such as the northern shores that border the US and Canada, and expand outward from those areas.

By the time Lyme Awareness Month arrives in May, ticks are rapidly on the move. Their activity increases early in the spring, keeping Justin busy testing ticks that have been submitted from across the country. Sarah reminds us about the importance of checking ourselves for ticks, and asks Justin about seasonal differences in tick submissions. He explains that he has created charts that represent not only when and where ticks are found, but also data about their species and life stages. The charts are based on the most relevant tick species and life stages, revealing important information about what species and life stages are most prevalent at different times throughout the year. For example, Blacklegged tick nymphs are considered higher risk (more dangerous) for humans as they are more difficult to feel or see on your body. Data from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces show that Blacklegged tick nymphs are more active from June to September, a time when more Canadians are enjoying an outdoor lifestyle.

“In the summer months when it’s a little bit hotter, we see a spike in the Blacklegged tick nymphs coming out…when humans are most active…that correlates with the time that I would consider the most dangerous stage of Blacklegged ticks, the nymphs, because they’re just so small that they can be so difficult to find.”

Justin Wood

Justin explains the difference between active and passive collection of tick data, and some of the different ways each type of data can be used. The map will represent changes over time in data from ticks that have been removed from people or animals from across Canada. In some cases, the data can be filtered to specific health regions, and all data within the map is available to the public.

TickMD

Justin walks us through some of the challenges of diagnosing early Lyme disease, especially in the absence of a bullseye rash. One of the challenges is the blood test which is based on an antibody response to the bacteria. In the critical early weeks after a tick bite, before we develop detectable antibodies, this test is often negative, leaving patients in the dark about the possibility of infection. TickMD provides people with tools for tick removal, tick testing and timely treatment, which are even more important in those critical early weeks. Justin notes that people who submit ticks to Geneticks for testing receive results either within 48 hours (expedited) or in 3 to 5 days. He also explains that TickMD is a virtual healthcare provider in Ontario who are able to work with patients to make informed treatment decisions after a tick bite. Hopefully access to physicians through this portal will expand as virtual healthcare evolves. Justin points out that dealing with tick bites through this way could remove pressure from a healthcare system which is currently overburdened. 

“The whole purpose of [the TickMD] program is really to give people an option, where they can very quickly after being bit by a tick, make an informed decision about what they should do next.”

Justin Wood

Our US listeners can submit ticks for testing to Tick Report, which is based out the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology.

Thank you Justin for your knowledge, dedication and creativity! We are delighted to work with you as a member of our Lyme Education, Awareness and Prevention (LEAP) Team, and excited to soon launch the second version of the CanLyme Teachers’ Resource! Thank you for testing ticks from across Canada and creating an invaluable tick map. It was so exciting to hear about your new affiliation with TickMD, a virtual healthcare provider in Ontario!

Related resources

Episode 34 cover image: the reflection of trees in a lake.

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