BENTON TOWNSHIP — Mallory Soja’s summer job is a real drag.
But that doesn’t bother her, because the results could help lessen a disease that is affecting more Michiganders.
Soja has been hired part-time by the Berrien County Health Department to conduct tick surveillance, visiting area parks and dragging along a wide piece of corduroy cloth through the brush and looking for bugs that attach to the surface. The project will continue for 16 weeks.
She is looking for black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks. Specifically, she is looking for female specimens, which can carry and transmit Lyme disease to humans.
The program is being funded through a $8,100 grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The Berrien County Health Department has conducted mosquito surveillance for the last few years, looking for insects that might carry West Nile or Zika viruses. But this is the first time since at least the early 1990s the department has scoured the countryside for ticks, according to Nick Margaritas, director of the county department’s environmental health division.
Michigan has seen a big jump in the number of cases of Lyme disease, from 30 two decades ago to 300 in 2016. Experts believe the incidents are under-reported, because milder symptoms can be mistaken for the flu. In more severe cases, the nervous system can be affected.
In 1998, the black-legged tick was established in five Michigan counties, with Berrien the only one in the lower peninsula. By 2016, the species was found in 24 counties, including throughout Southwest Michigan and all along the lakeshore.
Looking for ticks wasn’t exactly how Soja, who has a master’s degree in public health and works for Spectrum Health Lakeland, thought she would be spending her summer. When the opportunity presented itself, it fit in with her own interest in environmental issues.
On Thursday she was making her second visit to Warren Dunes State Park. The first trip yielded 11 black-legged ticks. This week’s walk-through netted four.
Soja drags her cloth 1,000 meters, or around a half-mile, through the leaf litter along the trail. At every 10 meters, or around 16 steps, she stops to check if she has any hitchhikers.
Ticks don’t hop, she pointed out, and only attach to skin or clothing when a person brushes against them. The ticks pick up Lyme disease from other animals that they grab onto.
And it’s only the female black-legged ticks that feed and spread Lyme disease (males are only looking for mates). Soja quickly distinguishes the females by the brown band on their backs.
Once she finds a sample, she picks it up with tweezers and drops it into a vial of ethanol. The samples will later be sent to a state lab.
The adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed. Soja also has to pick out the ticks in the nymphal stage, when they are so small that they can only be identified using a microscope.
Along with Warren Dunes, Soja is dragging for ticks at Grand Mere State Park (where she recently picked up 17 specimens) and at Love Creek and Madeline Bertrand county parks. A stop at Love Creek, in Berrien Center, yielded no specimens, which Soja said was surprising, and might have been due to the wet weather.
Ticks like damp conditions, but they don’t like it too wet, Soja shared. They also like it cool, but not too cold. May to August is the heaviest tick season.
Master’s in tickology
All of this has been a pretty big learning curve for Soja, who wasn’t an expert in ticks and mosquitoes before taking on the assignment. She encounters people along the trails who ask what she is doing, and share their own tick stories.
She has become the go-to expert on ticks for her friends. One even sent her a photo on her phone of an American dog tick lodged in his belly button (this species can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, although cases are rare).
Soja has come in for some teasing from her husband, Kris, who likes to sing her the country song “Let’s Check Each Other for Ticks.”
On one trip she had to borrow his car when the county van wasn’t available, and discovered over the weekend that she had brought in a tick.
It takes 24 to 48 hours for Lyme disease to be transmitted, so showering after being in an area where ticks are found is a good method of prevention. Hikers will be less likely to pick up ticks if they stay on the trail and out of the grass and brush. Applying repellant is another way to ward off infestation.
Along with her tick patrol, Soja checks mosquito traps placed around the county. Again, when looking for the species that carries West Nile virus, she has to separate the females, which are the ones that bite. The males are distinguished by their fuzzy antennae. She also conducts weekly beach water monitoring for E. coli contamination.
Soja works for the population health division at Lakeland. Their major project now is the community health report, with Soja focusing on the impact of education and transportation.
When it comes to reducing pests, Michigan might only be scratching the surface.
Guy Miller, epidemiologist with the health department, told the county board of health this week that vector surveillance is “very important, but extremely under-funded.”
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak