What are the chances of getting Lyme disease in Utah? USU scientists test ticks

USU biologist Ryan Davis in his tick-collecting suit. Photo courtesy Utah State University.

LOGAN – According to research done by Utah State University professors, it may be much more difficult to get Lyme disease in Utah than previously thought. A recent study collected ticks from all across the state, but not one tick tested positive for the disease.

Utah State University biology professor Scott Bernhardt said ticks from 157 sites around the state were collected and tested. Of all the ticks gathered, 119 were of the species capable of spreading the illness, but not one of the 119 tested positive for it. The ticks with the ability to carry it were all found in localized areas southwest of Provo, in the Tooele Mountains and in the St. George area.

“It’s not to say that Lyme disease doesn’t exist here in the state of Utah,” Bernhardt said. “But from our study we just weren’t able to find any.”

Despite the findings, Bernhardt said people still need to take precautions and be wary of ticks

“The ticks that we collected in high numbers aren’t the ones known for transmitting Lyme disease,” he said. “These ticks can transmit other diseases of importance like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tularemia.”

In order to carry out the study, Bernhardt’s colleague Ryan Davis spent days camping and traveling through the state in a protective white suit and flannel cape he would drag through bushes to pick up the ticks. In some sites many ticks were collected, and in others, nothing.

“There were a lot of sites we didn’t collect ticks,” Bernhardt said. “It doesn’t mean the ticks aren’t there, we just didn’t hit it on the right date, or the right season, to find them.”

Bernhardt said that as far as scientists know, the only possible way to get Lyme disease is by way of an infected tick, and the tick has to feed on its host for at least three-to-five days to transmit it. Even with all that, people in Cache Valley and other parts of Utah still get Lyme disease.

“The question comes up as to, ‘Why do people get Lyme disease who don’t have that history or don’t recognize that history of when and if they were ever bit by a tick?’” he said. “You have to go to places where Lyme disease is endemic or where it is found naturally in the environment.”

The majority of the study was funded by Utah State University Extension, but the state also contributed. Bernhardt said the previous data being used was from the 1960s.

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