Tackling a 'ticking' time bomb
13 May 2015
Tackling a 'ticking' timebomb 13/05/2015 ‘Citizen science’, state-of-the-art technology and funding from the European Space Agency (ESA) are to combine in a pioneering Scottish Highlands project to tackle tick bites and Lyme disease. The ESA has awarded €250,000 to a consortium to test the feasibility of LymeMap, a phone app and web-based system that will help to identify tick hot-spots. 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, Inverness – will help to produce maps showing where they are most prevalent. “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,” said Roger Evans, a clinical scientist with NHS Highland, one of the agencies collaborating in the project. “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. 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). They come from: • The NHS Highland National Lyme Borreliosis Testing Laboratory at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness. • NHS Highland’s Research and Development Department, which in addition to project management experience employs a primary care research co-ordinator working with 18 GP practices that have an interest in Lyme disease. • The University of the Highlands and Islands Rural Health and Wellbeing research group, which has expertise in community engagement, community mapping and participatory analysis of mapped data visualisations. The group will work with stakeholders such as outdoor workers and leisure users to ensure their needs are met through LymeMap. • The Scottish Rural College (SRUC) Veterinary Epidemiology Research Unit at Drummond Hill, Inverness. The unit has expertise in endemic and epidemic disease control, field epidemiology, zoonotic disease research and advanced skills in statistical modelling. Two companies are part of the consortium: Environmental Research Group Oxford (ERGO) and Avia-GIS bvba 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. Further funding for the community engagement part of the project has been approved by the Robertson Trust and awarded to the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is leading on this part of the LymeMap project. 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.” The funding comes from the European Space Agency Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems Integrated Applications Promotions (ARTES 20 IAP) programme. See https://artes-apps.esa.int/ Notes to editor About Lyme disease Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative organism of Lyme borreliosis (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. The team National Lyme Borreliosis Testing Laboratory, Raigmore Hospital, Inverness The director of the service is Dr Emma Watson and the deputy director is Dr Roger Evans. The laboratory performs all the testing for Lyme borreliosis in Scotland. It has an active research programme, producing publications for more than 20 years. The laboratory has a detailed database of patients throughout Scotland with Lyme borreliosis, including patient demographics and clinical information. NHS Highland Research and Development and Primary Care The feasibility study will be project managed by NHS Highland’s Research and Development Department, led by Frances Hines. It has experience in generating innovative ideas and bringing them to market. Frances Hines also has experience of leading and managing European projects. Samantha Holden, also from NHS Highland’s Research and Development Department, leads a consortium of 18 GPs with an interest in Lyme borreliosis. This group is currently leading a locally initiated pilot study interrogating GP records to collect retrospective data on Lyme borreliosis. Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) Professor George Gunn leads the Inverness Epidemiology Research Unit (ERU), a team of research staff in the fields of veterinary epidemiology and zoonotic disease. ERU focuses on interdisciplinary applied epidemiology, with particular expertise in statistical analysis and mathematical modelling of disease, and with experience in ‘One Health’ approaches that consider human, animal and environmental factors. Statisticians and epidemiologists will analyse the data from the Lyme borreliosis lab and the primary care project with EPIC (led by Prof Gunn, the Scottish Government’s Centre of Expertise in Animal Disease Outbreaks, which aims to provide the best available scientific advice to inform government policy on reducing the impact of animal disease outbreaks) and in consultation with ERGO. Rural Health and Wellbeing, University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness The community engagement part of this project has been developed by Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz, from Rural Health and Wellbeing, University of the Highlands and Islands. She has considerable experience in community engagement research within European Union and UK Research Council funded projects. This process will involve several phases of engagement with stakeholder groups to inform the product development. Avia-GIS Agriculture and Veterinary Information and Analysis is headed by Dr Guy Hendrickx, and is a Belgian SME, founded in 2001, that specialises in the collection, processing and analysis of spatial information as a basis for the development of data-driven space-time information systems applied to veterinary and public health in general and emerging zoonoses and vector-borne diseases in particular. The company focuses on the application of state-of-the-art techniques that broaden the scope of conventional analyses and help to bridge the gap between research and decision-making including: geographical information systems, spatial modelling and analysis, earth observation and satellite navigation. Avia-GIS leads VECTORNET, the European network for arthropod vectors transmitting human and animal disease agents, and collaborates with many institutions including SRUC and ERGO. Environmental Research Group Oxford (ERGO) Oxford-based ERGO established in 1985, specialises in applied research for sustainable development and provides a broad spectrum of advisory services relating to environmental assessment, natural resource management, project implementation and technical back-stopping. Views expressed in this media release should not be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Space Agency.