Pittsburg study shows tick-borne diseases on the rise

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
Pittsburg State University researchers collect ticks as part of a study in 2019. Although the researchers shown here were conducting a different study than the one whose results were more recently published, both groups of researchers have had similar findings.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Researchers who spent three years studying ticks in the Pittsburg area have published their findings, which indicate that tick-borne diseases are increasing in the Midwest. 

To conduct the study, described in a press release from the University of Missouri—Columbia as “the most comprehensive of its kind in the Midwest region of the United States,” researchers collected nearly 16,000 ticks from locations in and around Pittsburg between March 2014 and February 2017. Among four species found, the vast majority of ticks collected were A. americanum, also known as the lone star tick. 

The four-state area is a hotspot for tick-borne diseases, according to the study, and those diseases are increasing. Ticks can spread many potentially serious illnesses including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and ehrlichiosis. 

“We have seen increases recently in both the number and severity of tick-borne diseases in the Midwest, particularly in the humid climates of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas,” one of the researchers, Dr. Ram Raghavan, said in the release. 

“Since more people get infected by tick-borne diseases each year than any other vector-borne disease, it is important that we better understand what type of ticks are present in our region, where they are located and what time of year they are most prevalent,” said Raghavan, who previously taught at Kansas State University and is now a professor at the University of Missouri. “This information will help keep us, our families, pets and livestock safe.” 

Factors contributing to the increase in tick-borne diseases include humans increasingly relocating from urban to suburban and rural areas closer to ticks’ natural habitats, the increasing popularity of outdoor fitness activities, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increase in the population of white-tailed deer, a major host animal for ticks. 

“Climate change has played a role as well, as the warmer temperatures and humidity seem to be creating perfect conditions for ticks and the pathogens they carry to thrive,” according to the University of Missouri release. 

While the new study may be “the most comprehensive of its kind in the Midwest,” it is not the only study of ticks in the Pittsburg area that has been conducted in recent years. 

Dr. Anuradha Ghosh, a Pittsburg State University assistant professor and environmental health scientist, has also studied ticks in the Pittsburg area over a multi-year period. While Ghosh knows Raghavan and is familiar with his work, she said Friday, the two studies are not affiliated. 

Just because the two studies are sponsored by different universities, however, does not mean there is no connection between them. Former PSU professor David Gordon and former PSU graduate student Ali Hroobi were co-authors with Raghavan of the more recently published study of Pittsburg-area ticks, and judging by Ghosh’s comments on her own work in recent years, the two groups of researchers’ conclusions were also similar. 

“Southeast Kansas is a hub for ticks because of the heat and high humidity,” Ghosh said in 2019. “As our climate warms, ticks are prevailing in this direction following the migration of their hosts — they’re very sensitive to temperatures and humidity. We’re studying the distribution of various tick species and whether it’s going up or down. We’re watching for an invasion, as well.”