GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Wildlife researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found a novel pathogen for the first time in North Carolina that is carried by chiggers.

Bacteria called Orientia tsutsugamushi causes the disease scrub typhus, which is spread to people through bites of infected chiggers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That is a disease that has never been described in North America or in the Americas altogether,” Dr. Gideon Wasserberg, an infectious disease expert who works in the UNCG Department of Biology, said.

Symptoms include:

  • a dark scab at the site of the bite
  • confusion
  • fever
  • chills
  • headache
  • body aches
  • rash
  • larger lymph nodes

In some extreme cases, it can lead to organ failure.

There is no vaccine available to prevent scrub typhus, but the antibiotic doxycycline can be given to anyone. People treated with doxycycline tend to recover quickly. The antibiotic will be more effective if given as soon as symptoms become noticeable.

“Typically, people did not consider them [chiggers] like mosquitoes or ticks that might be transmitting infectious agents that cause disease … They haven’t been of much concern because we thought that there’s no scrub typhus here,” Wasserberg said.

Most cases of scrub typhus happen in rural areas of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India, Pakistan and northern Australia.

“We conducted surveillance of the chiggers. We used two approaches. One is scraping them off of … rodents,” Wasserberg said.

Researchers also used a black tile out in the field to collect chiggers. They waited a few seconds for the mites to crawl onto the tile then transferred them to a vial.

Once the chiggers were analyzed, and scrub typhus was discovered, Wasserberg said researchers found high infection rates.

“There were some sites that had 50%. I think we even had a site that had 90% infection in the chiggers,” Wasserberg said. “That was fairly alarming.”

The sample size was small at around 10 chiggers, so Wasserberg says more research needs to be done with higher sample sizes.

Researchers are currently trying to expand their studies and learn more about the link between chiggers and scrub typhus in North Carolina.

If you will be spending time outside, you’re urged to use insect repellents registered for use against chiggers.

If you have a baby or child:

  • Dress them in clothing that covers their arms and legs or cover their crib, stroller or baby carrier with mosquito netting.
  • Do not apply insect repellent on a child’s eyes, mouth, hands or on cuts or irritated skin. Instead, spray the repellent on your hand and then apply it to the child’s face.