Citizen-Based Surveillance of Ixodes scapularis and Other Ticks Using eTick.ca

eTick.ca is a public platform for image-based identification and population monitoring of ticks in Canada. The platform was created in 2014 by Professor Jade Savage, a biologist at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with the financial support of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the collaboration of the Institut national de santé publique du Québec.

Lyme disease, spread by Blacklegged ticks and other vector-borne diseases are becoming more prevalent in northern climates as shifting weather patterns, changing seasonality, and increases to average temperature have resulted in changes to conventional patterns of disease vectors.

The typical hosts of Blacklegged ticks include White-tailed deer, White-footed mouse, and migratory birds. The habitat and migratory patterns of these species has been expanding northward as a result of climate change, and has allowed for the integration of Blacklegged ticks into previously tick-free environments. Further, the longer fall seasons and milder winters have allowed Blacklegged ticks to establish populations previously too cold to sustain them.

eTick.ca, a “citizen science project”, encourages the public to participate in the monitoring of ticks in Canada by submitting tick photos for identification by a professional. Identification results, collection data, and locality are then mapped so users can track both species data and geographic location for any given year. Etick.ca also provides information on identifying ticks, how to properly and safely remove ticks, and recommendations following a bite.


Understanding and Identifying Impacts

The emergence and geographical expansion of Lyme disease into Canada are important issues for public health, and the monitoring of tick populations nationally is an expensive and logistical challenge for public health units. As Canada’s climate warms, the prevalence of Lyme and other vector-borne diseases is projected to increase.

Lyme disease is an infectious disease spread through the bite of infected ticks. Two types of ticks that can spread Lyme disease are found in Canada: the Blacklegged tick or Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) found in southeastern and south-central Canada, and the Western Blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) found in British Columbia. Ticks become infected with Lyme disease bacteria by feeding on infected wild animals such as rodents and birds. White-footed mice and migratory birds, hosts for Blacklegged ticks, have been expanding their habitat northward at an accelerated pace due to warming temperatures in Canada, and as such, have brought Blacklegged ticks with them. Both immature ticks, called nymphs, and adult ticks can spread Lyme, and are the size of a poppy seed to a sesame seed. People who work outdoors or engage in outdoor activities are at greater risk of tick bites.

Lyme disease can cause mild to severe symptoms, including flu-like symptoms in early on-set cases, and can lead to severe headaches, facial paralysis, heart and neurological orders, and in rare cases death. Typically, infected ticks must feed for at least 24 hours before the bacteria can be transmitted, and early diagnosis increases the chance of successful treatment.

Identifying Actions

With the rapid change of distribution of invasive species due to climate change, and the provincial nature of public health provision and monitoring in Canada, the surveillance of tick populations across the country is costly and difficult to standardize and reconcile. Further, as a previously relatively rare vector-borne disease, Lyme reporting and publicly available resources are lacking.

Dr. Savage, through her work as an entomologist with Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, sought to create a toolkit that would aid in the identification of ticks, provide publicly available resources on advice and prevention of tick bites, and to create a standardized model for the collection and surveillance of tick populations across Canada. Capitalizing on the design and popularity of “citizen science” apps such as ebird and iNaturalist, etick.ca, and subsequently, the etick app were created to provide a user-friendly platform for the identification of ticks and dissemination of tick and vector-borne related resources. Proof of concept was submitted in 2017, and funding was provided to expand the etick resource beyond Quebec.

Implementation

Through subsequent funding agreements from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, etick.ca has been expanded outside of Quebec and is currently in operation and collaborating with Health Units in all 10 provinces in Canada. etick.ca tracks all user submissions and compiles data related to the identification of tick species, as well as geographical information, allowing users to locate and track tick encounters in their communities. Users can submit photos of ticks for identification and receive verification of tick species within 1-2 days, and are provided with resources and next steps. As many species of ticks in Canada do not pose a medical risk, the rapid identification and next steps process allows users who have been exposed to ticks bites to assess their risk, and seek medical attention if needed. The supplementary information provided by etick.ca also assists in raising awareness of the dangers of vector-borne diseases, the changes in and shifting habitats of ticks, and how to protect and safely remove ticks if bitten.

Outcomes and Monitoring

etick.ca has identified and vetted over 22,000 tick photos submitted by users to date, and has seen a major surge in submissions over the last two years. This has provided users with timely tick identification, and has provided geographic data relating to tick encounters across the country allowing the public to better understand the risks that they face from tick encounters in their communities. etick.ca has produced a number of co-benefits for both the public, as well as municipalities and provincial and federal governments. All of the data on etick.ca is publicly available, and allows municipalities to access geospatial data as it relates to their communities.

The rapid identification of tick species provides users who have been exposed to tick bites a peace of mind, as the lack of publicly available information on the risks of Lyme and other vector-borne diseases can cause stress and anxiety to those affected by a tick bite. Further, as etick.ca continues to collect and assess data, more information regarding the spread of tick habitat and vector-borne diseases can be made available to the public and municipalities.

Next Steps

Dependent on funding through to 2023, etick.ca is working with public health units and governments in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut to expand access to the territories, and is working with public health units across the country to better integrate medical and health aspects into data collection, mapping, and monitoring.

Resources

Link to Full Case Study

Further understand how climate information can be applied in decision-making by exploring the Health Module on ClimateData.ca