STATE-OF-THE-ART technology is being used to provide up-to-date maps of where ticks – which can cause the potentially debilitating Lyme disease – are the most prevalent.
LymeMap is a phone app and web-based system that will help to identify tick hot-spots.
The pioneering project, which received £182,500 funding from the European Space Agency, has been launched in the Highlands, where ticks are a particular problem as they are found mainly in the countryside and woodland.
Through LymeMap, information and advice on ticks and Lyme disease will be available to members of the public, healthcare professionals, tourist organisations and bodies working outdoors or pursuing leisure pursuits.
The system will use GPS technology to provide information on a user’s location as well as details such as the location’s height, temperature and ground cover.
The person will be able to upload information on ticks and this – together with data from GPs and NHS Highland’s National Lyme Borreliosis Testing Laboratory at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness – will help to produce maps showing where they are most prevalent.
Roger Evans, a clinical scientist with NHS Highland, one of the agencies collaborating in the project, said: “Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne human disease in the UK, and the number of cases reported in Scotland has increased ten-fold in the past 10 years.
“If it is not diagnosed and treated properly, it can lead to a severe and debilitating disease.
“Unfortunately, health organisations have limited effective tools at their disposal to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease.
“Resident and visiting populations need an approach that will help them prevent getting Lyme disease and manage exposure to ticks.”
He added: “From a health and safety and an economic point of view, organisations and businesses that employ people exposed to infected ticks also need a better tool for preventing the disease.
“We believe that by using the latest technology and what’s commonly called citizen science we can create an interactive and accurate Lyme disease identification and risk management system.”
Professor George Gunn, project leader and head of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)’s Epidemiology Research Unit, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for Scottish organisations to work together to make a tangible difference to the health of those working outdoors and outdoor enthusiasts who are most likely to be exposed to ticks.
“The ERU has particular expertise in data analysis and will be using this to create risk maps that vary by season and which will be used to help minimise the risk of ticks to users.”
The one-year study will test the technical and commercial feasibility of LymeMap.
If it is successful, and subject to funding, the project is expected to move to a demonstrator phase before being commercialised.
There are plans to extend the system to other diseases that can be passed between animals and humans, as well as to other countries, again if funds are available.
The European Space Agency funding follows work facilitated by the Centre of Health Science to try to establish the true incidence of the disease in the Highlands and to look at new ways of tackling it.
The collaboration brings together a unique combination of health, veterinary and academic researchers with significant expertise in Lyme borreliosis (Lyme disease).
Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz, Senior Research Fellow in Rural Health at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “Our Rural Health and Wellbeing research group is pleased to be leading the stakeholder engagement element of LymeMap.
“We will be utilising tools developed through our previous research in participatory mapping to work with stakeholders such as farmers, foresters, outdoor leisure users and people who live in areas with high incidence of Lyme disease within the Highlands.
“Through community workshops and participatory research, we will disseminate and discuss information and data on Lyme disease with these stakeholders.
“Ultimately, this will help us to co-design risk prevention strategies with those who are most at risk. Information collected through our community engagement process will ensure that user input is at the heart of the development of the LymeMap application.”
Lyme disease is carried by ticks that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. People are at highest risk of contracting Lyme borreliosis in woodland, grassland and moorland areas, and so outdoor workers, tourists and outdoor enthusiasts are particularly vulnerable.
Tick bites often go unnoticed and the tick can remain feeding for several days before dropping off. The longer the tick is in place, the higher the risk of Lyme disease.
The reasons for the increasing incidence of Lyme borreliosis are not known, but may include ecological changes affecting the number of ticks or the proportion of ticks infected, as well as increasing recreational use of the countryside.
The disease can be found in at least 80 countries, making it an issue of worldwide significance.
Two companies are part of the consortium – the Environmental Research Group Oxford (ERGO) and Avia-GIS Agriculture and Veterinary Information and Analysis (AVIA-GIS), from Belgium.
ERGO specialise in the spatial modelling of vector-borne diseases and the development of satellite-derived environmental time series and will develop the proof of concept stage of LymeMap.
Avia-GIS specialize in the development of spatial information systems for disease management and will be in charge of conducting the economic and non-economic viability analysis.