GREENVILLE, Ky. – One Soldier’s passion for preventive medicine became an unusual annual tradition at Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center in Greenville, Ky.
For more than twenty years, Col. Jesse Huff, the outgoing preventive medicine officer for the Kentucky Army National Guard Medical Detachment, has been collecting ticks to prevent tick-related Soldier illness and support national-level scientific studies on the species.
According to Huff, WHFRTC can determine where to spray pesticides based on where they find large concentrations of ticks. Their efforts reduce the risk of Soldiers becoming host to these common parasites.
Ticks, which survive by ingesting the blood of other animals, such as deer, rodents, or even humans, can carry infectious diseases and transmit this illness to their host. Common tick-borne diseases which can be transmitted to humans are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, and Heartland and Bourbon Virus Diseases.
When a person becomes ill, doctors can compare the patient’s symptoms to that of the tick-borne illnesses found in the area and reach a diagnosis for treatment more quickly.
“I would collect ticks in certain areas and send them off to the Public Health Command-Atlantic lab at Fort Meade, Maryland, and they would send me back the diseases prevailing within the area,” said Huff. “Instead of a doctor sitting here going, ‘It could be this, or it could be this,’ a Soldier coming down with a sickness from being at Wendell Ford can get the right treatment sooner once we rule out any tick-borne illness.”
In 2012, contributions by Huff at WHFRTC and by other teams at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell were used as evidence to suggest increased public awareness for tick-borne diseases in central and western Kentucky and Tennessee.
Visit the National Center for Biotechnology Information to view more on this scientific study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4193168/.
To collect as many specimens as safely possible, Huff, Capt. Bryan Parker, and Sgt. Lance Mudd, all from the same unit, used a technologically advanced bait-and-tackle technique.
“It takes a nice sunny day to start; weather is important,” said Huff. “We use white sheets, dry ice and a cardboard box. We place the dry ice in the box and place the box in the middle of the sheet after it is spread out. The carbon dioxide draws the ticks to the sheets where we can see their dark bodies easily against the white background. We also dress in all-white hazmat suits.”
The white suits, he adds, are not only for their protection from the parasites, but to easily spot and collect them directly from their uniforms similar to the purpose of using white sheets.
Several collection sites are used at the training center to help collect 150-400 individual specimens for shipment to the labs each year.
Interestingly, tick migration has also been discovered through this study.
While watching TV one night, Huff noticed a map and graphic of migrating “critters” that showed a Gulf Coast tick and its newly discovered migration behavior.
“There was a bright pattern on the TV shown right over the map where Wendell Ford sits,” said Huff, referring to the Gulf Coast tick migration as shown on screen. “This could only have come from us and our collection process. That felt so amazing to me to see our work like that.”
Tick collection occurs only once each year, however, Huff and his preventive medicine team from MED DET stays busy at WHFRTC.
Throughout the year, they periodically inspect food and water to be consumed by Soldiers visiting the training site, and they host regular field sanitation courses for other units in the state.
“The field sanitation course gives troops a little assistance by teaching them how to check the water and food before their Soldiers get sick, or learn they sometimes have to trace a sickness back to a source. We teach them how to inspect water coolers, water buffalos, and field kitchens while they are out in the field,” he said.
In 2005, the preventive medicine team reported to New Orleans, Louisiana, for support efforts during Hurricane Katrina.
Closer to home, the team was called in to support Kentucky during the ice storm of 2009. They inspected food to be handed out to people with lost power and set up aid stations for those that were unable to reach medical facilities. Patients included Kentucky citizens as well as Guardsmen who became ill while on duty.
Today, Huff is preparing for retirement after 33 years in the Guard. From Madisonville, Ky., he spent 31 years as a school teacher and 25 years as a coach. As a man of simultaneous careers, he looks forward to the extra time for boating, traveling, and spending time with his family.
As his career with the Kentucky Guard comes to an end, the tick collection goes on. In 2022, Capt. Bryan Parker, the incoming preventive medicine officer, will take the lead in this unique form of illness prevention.