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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Tick Researchers Receive $2.5 Million from the National Institutes of Health

By Noell Saunders

Warmer weather means spending more time wandering through parks. It also means keeping an eye out for the tiny dangers that may be lurking.

Tick season is underway, and it's a growing problem in Virginia. The tiny bloodsucking creatures can be a host for a variety of bacteria, one of which causes Lyme disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 30,000 cases of Lyme are reported every year, but the true numbers could be up to 10 times higher.

Old Dominion University researcher Holly Gaff and her team recently received a National Institutes of Health grant for $2.5 million to study three types of tick systems: two in the United States and one in Africa.

They will collaborate with scientists from Old Dominion, the University of Richmond, the University of Florida, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the University of Zambia.

"We are looking at the changes in spotted fever group rickettsiosis agents in ticks," Gaff said.

Spotted fever group rickettsioses are a group of diseases caused by closely related bacteria. These bacteria are spread to people through bites from infected mites and ticks.

Gaff, who's an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is working with the CDC to revamp a mathematical model for Lyme disease that was originally published in the 1990s.

"We are working to update the equations to use all available research," she said. "We will then test various interventions to hopefully identify the most effective methods for reducing Lyme disease in a given area."

ODU's tick research team is also working with the University of Richmond and Hollins University to test for behavioral differences in ticks from Hampton Roads and from northern Virginia.

Here are some prevention tips for avoiding ticks:

  • Treat clothing and gear with sprays and products containing permethrin.
  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
  • Conduct a full body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas, including your own backyard; and
  • Tuck pant legs into socks or shoes to create a seal that ticks cannot enter.

If you are bitten by a tick, you should:

  • Grasp the tick's mouth parts against the skin, using pointed tweezers. Pull steadily until you can ease the tick out of the skin.
  • Wash the wound site and your hands with soap and water after removal; and
  • Consult your physician to see if you should save the tick for further evaluation.

The public is invited to bring tick specimens to Gaff's lab, in the Mills Godwin Building on West 44th Street. For more information, call 757-683-6903.

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