Eco-social interactions influencing human exposure to ticks and the Lyme disease agent in anthropogenic landscapes
There are about 300,000 cases of Lyme disease every year in the United States. There is no Lyme disease vaccine available for humans, so the only prevention options are to reduce the number of ticks infected with the bacterium in the environment and to reduce human contact with ticks. To help develop these prevention methods, our study will simultaneously investigate how the ticks and the bacteria are dispersed and survive in the environment and where people are encountering the ticks, whether in their own yards or in the natural areas they visit. We will use state-of-the-art technology to monitor deer movement by GPS and human movement using a smartphone application. This will be the first study in the United States to focus on tick-borne diseases in urban green spaces, where dense human populations co-exist with urban wildlife that disperse ticks and the microorganisms they carry. A multidisciplinary team of ecologists, epidemiologists, social scientists, and economists was assembled to investigate this complex system. By engaging with the community in a citizen science approach, the researchers will better understand people's knowledge, actions and motivations in relation to tick-borne diseases; educate people on proper protection methods; and provide recommendations to reduce the individual and community risk of Lyme disease. The project is led by two Hispanic females and will build the community of interdisciplinary scholars ready to tackle socioenvironmental systems research, including two postdoctoral researchers, one PhD student, and more than five Master's and undergraduate students.
The research team hypothesizes that tick-borne diseases act as an integrated socioenvironmental system in which environmental- and human-associated drivers reciprocally influence each other. Central to the approach is the assessment of the relative contributions of ecological and human behavioral factors to increased Lyme disease incidence, with a focus on urban landscapes. Because of the aggregated nature of risk in urban areas, the study units will be 'ecological neighborhoods', each composed of an urban park on Staten Island, New York City and the houses around that park. The researchers will first study how the movement of deer and the abundance of other animals result in differential dispersal of ticks in parks across Staten Island. Then, they will explore how features of the backyards surrounding the parks influence their attractiveness to hosts carrying ticks and the survival of ticks after they drop off from hosts. A smartphone app will provide information on people's movement and exposure risk. The research team will also conduct surveys to assess people's knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding tick-borne diseases and identify risky behaviors and avoidance practices. By integrating these data to inform agent-based models, the team will identify optimum combinations of interventions at the level of the individual, community, and city. These 'integrated tick management' approaches will be provided to policy makers to better target public health interventions.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.