Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Biological and Environmental Sciences

First Advisor

Thomas Mather

Abstract

The multitude of factors fueling the escalation in tick-borne disease in the United States is further complicated by gaps in public knowledge and inconsistent adherence to tick-bite prevention behaviors. Passive tick surveillance is a growing strategy to monitor tick species trends and associated pathogen prevalence across the country. Most practice involves citizens shipping encountered ticks to a laboratory for identification and pathogen testing, but given potential delays in mailing and processing time, tick bite victims may be placed outside the window of potential prophylactic options, or under unnecessary antibiotic administration. Recently, photographed-based tick surveillance has been shown to be a viable alternative to in-hand specimen surveillance. We evaluated four years of data from a nationwide crowdsourced photographic tick surveillance program (TickSpotters) to examine its utility as both a tick identification and surveillance tool, as well as a channel to engage the public in health communication theory-based tick bite prevention education. We found that when compared to laboratory confirmed specimens, trained tick scientists could identify commonly encountered tick specimens by photograph submission with an overall accuracy of 96.7%. Photograph submissions to the system capture more than 50% of known county distribution of three ticks of human and veterinary medical relevance, and potentially detected hundreds more counties with newly described tick presence. Participant responses collected by the TickSpotters system suggested that the public demonstrates poor overall tick identification ability, particularly when it comes to nymph stage ticks and tick specimens that are highly-engorged. Pets appear to have ticks that feed on them for longer than those on humans, and pet owners report more tick encounters on their pets in the colder months. When compared to Master Gardeners, TickSpotters users reported more frequently performed tick bite management strategies that are in line with science-based guidance, but both TickSpotters and Master Gardeners exhibited poor tick knowledge as well as inconsistent prevention behaviors. These results support the use of the TickSpotters program as a socioecological surveillance tool, and also reveal several areas requiring reassessment to improve the program’s role in prevention educational interventions.

Available for download on Saturday, November 21, 2020

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