Major Scientific Journal Publishes Hollins Professor’s Study of Reducing Tick-Borne Diseases

Elizabeth Gleim

The world’s 11th-most cited scientific journal is highlighting findings by a Hollins faculty member that controlled burning could be an effective tool in battling tick-borne pathogens.

Scientific Reports, an open-access publication featuring original research from across all areas of the natural and clinical sciences, has published “Frequent Prescribed Fires Can Reduce Risk of Tick-borne Diseases,” whose lead author is Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Elizabeth Gleim.

A previous two-year study by Gleim and her fellow researchers determined that tick populations were substantially lowered where long-term prescribed fires, “an especially common and necessary land management practice in fire-dependent ecosystems such as open pine forests, grasslands, and fire-maintained wetlands,” were employed.

“In the current study,” Gleim’s report states, “these ticks were tested for pathogens to more directly investigate the impacts of long-term prescribed burning on human disease risk….The incidence of these tick-borne diseases has increased in the past several decades and several new pathogens have emerged….Thus, the need to find cost-effective, practical approaches to reducing tick-borne disease risk is more important than ever.

“To follow up on our finding that long-term prescribed fire significantly reduced tick abundance,” the report continues, “the current study tested the ticks collected in that previous study for common tick-borne pathogens to investigate how prescribed fire may affect pathogen dynamics.”

Gleim and her team performed the first-ever major survey of tick-borne pathogens in southwestern Georgia and northwestern Florida. The results offer “exciting implications for public health as it appears that prescribed fire, when performed on a regular basis, significantly reduces encounter rates with ticks infected with pathogenic bacteria.” Reductions in tick populations were sustained rather than temporary “through regular, long-term prescribed fires [that] resulted in a drier microclimate at ground-level….”

While the results of the study are encouraging, Gleim concludes with a couple of caveats. “Because all of our burned sites had been burned on a regular basis for a minimum of ten years, further research needs to occur to determine how long regular burns would have to occur in order to achieve the results observed in this study. Additionally, the particular habitat and microclimatic conditions that are required for the results observed in this study seem to imply that the ability of fire to reduce tick populations and disease risk may vary depending on ecosystem-type and the management objectives of the prescribed fire.

“Thus, similar studies need to be conducted in different ecosystems and regions of the country to determine whether long-term prescribed burning could have effects similar to those observed in the current study on different pathogens and/or within different ecosystems.”

Scientific Reports received more than 300,000 citations in 2018 and garners widespread attention in policy documents and the media. It is part of Nature Research, a family of journals that includes Nature, the leading international weekly journal of science first published in 1869.