Jill Henning didn’t need a detailed report to know that the risk of Lyme disease is real in western Pennsylvania.
But the results of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown associate professor’s multi-year study shocked her anyway.
DNA testing of 500 deer ticks caught across the region showed that one in three carried the Lyme bacteria, Henning and a team of six Pitt-Johnstown students found.
“Typically when you think about Lyme disease issues, people think of it as an East Coast thing. But the results show just how much it’s spreading west across the state,” she said. “It really shows that we’re dealing with a problem that continues to grow.”
Henning researched ticks and Lyme disease as an undergraduate and studied infectious diseases as a grad student at The University of Pittsburgh.
“This is an active area. A lot of people are into hiking and biking and other outdoor activities … and there isn’t a lot of research regarding ticks and their association with Lyme disease in this part of Pennsylvania,” she said.
The research also allowed her to biology students to gain engaging experience both in the field and in a lab setting, Henning said.
The team focused its research on “questing” deer ticks – those hunting for a new host – in Bedford, Cambria, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.
They acquired a state Game Commission permit to collect the tiny arachnids inside game land property, areas that are typically havens for mammals like mice, rabbits and deer that ticks feed on throughout their lifespan, she said.
Students dragged a white sheet through six different forested areas like the Prince Gallitzin area and central Bedford County to pick up the ticks.
“I made them pull up their hair and wear white so that any ticks that jumped on to them were easy to spot,” Henning said. Any openings between clothing where skin might be accessible were fastened with duct tape, she said.
Once students were back on campus, they crushed the ticks’ bodies with tweezers, she said. Their remains were placed into containers for DNA testing.
Approximately 500 deer ticks were tested – a four-hour process each time, Pitt-Johnstown senior Corey Coleman, 21, said.
The results stunned him, too.
“When you think of Lyme disease, you think it’s some kind of rare occurrence. But this shows that if you get bit by a tick, the odds aren’t rare that you can get it,” said Coleman. of Central City.
It also shows there’s a need to educate the region about the risks – and safeguarding against them, he said.
Lyme disease can cause reoccurring joint pain and neurological issues if left unchecked. But for those who take steps to check for bites quickly after encountering ticks, it can make a big difference, he said.
“If you catch it early, antibiotics can cure it,” he said.
The study’s results show there’s a widespread need for outreach about the local risk of getting Lyme disease, Henning said.
She has reached out to pediatricians and veterinarians, so that parents and pet owners are educated about the concern.
“If there is a 33 percent chance of acquiring Lyme disease if you are bitten, that’s something they need to know,” Henning said.
Particularly when Lyme disease symptoms are often misdiagnosed as other ailments, she said.
“There is definitely a need for outreach,” she said.
Henning and her students are also working on several other Lyme disease studies, including one looking at birds carrying the bacteria through tick bites.
They’re replicating studies conducted in the midwest – where Lyme disease traditionally hasn’t been a threat – to see where the birds are originating from and migrating to, their ages and other data.
That research, conducted alongside fellow Pitt-Johnstown associate professor Christine Dahlin, remains ongoing, Henning said.