Changes in the geographic distribution of the blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, in the United States
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Changes in the geographic distribution of the blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, in the United States

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  • Alternative Title:
    Ticks Tick Borne Dis
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    Ixodes scapularis (the blacklegged tick) was considered a species of no medical concern until the mid-1970s. By that time, the tick's geographic distribution was thought to be mainly in the southeastern United States (US), with additional localized populations along the Eastern Seaboard north to southern Massachusetts and in the Upper Midwest. Since 1975, I. scapularis has been implicated as a vector of seven human pathogens and is now widely distributed across the eastern US up to the border with Canada. Geographic expansion of tick-borne diseases associated with I. scapularis (e.g., Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis) is attributed to an expanding range of the tick. However, due to changes in tick surveillance efforts over time, it is difficult to differentiate between range expansion and increased recognition of already established tick populations. We provide a history of the documented occurrence of I. scapularis in the US from its description in 1821 to present, emphasizing studies that provide evidence of expansion of the geographic distribution of the tick. Deforestation and decimation of the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the primary reproductive host for I. scapularis adults, during the 1800s presumably led to the tick disappearing from large areas of the eastern US where it previously had been established. Subsequent reforestation and deer population recovery, together with recent climate warming, contributed to I. scapularis proliferating in and spreading from refugia where it had persisted into the early 1900s. From documented tick collection records, it appears I. scapularis was present in numerous locations in the southern part of the eastern US in the early 1900s, whereas in the north it likely was limited to a small number of refugia sites during that time period. There is clear evidence for established populations of I. scapularis in coastal New York and Massachusetts by 1950, and in northwestern Wisconsin by the late 1960s. While recognizing that surveillance for I. scapularis increased dramatically from the 1980s onward, we describe multiple instances of clearly documented expansion of the tick's geographic distribution in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Ohio Valley regions from the 1980s to present. Spread and local population increase of I. scapularis, together with documentation of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto in host-seeking ticks, was universally followed by increases in Lyme disease cases in these areas. Southward expansion of northern populations of I. scapularis, for which the host questing behavior of the nymphal stage leads to substantially higher risk of human bites compared with southern populations, into Virginia and North Carolina also was followed by rising numbers of Lyme disease cases. Ongoing surveillance of ticks and tick-borne pathogens is essential to provide the data needed for studies that seek to evaluate the relative roles of land cover, tick hosts, and climate in explaining and predicting geographic expansion of ticks and tick-borne diseases.
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