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Frantic About Residential Tick Management? This Film Series is Just for You

Spray Safe, Play Safe film series behind the scenes

Fran Tick is prepped for a shot in the first film, “The Problem of Blacklegged Ticks and Lyme Disease.” In this film, neighbors in a Lyme-endemic New England town discuss the problem of blacklegged ticks and how to have a block party without ticks. Children line up to board the school bus but do not realize that Fran Tick follows them onto the bus.

By Vicki Hornbostel

Fran Tick is an adult blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis). Well, actually, she’s a morphologically accurate, human-sized blacklegged tick mascot. She appears in a series of films, Spray Safe, Play Safe, about residential tick management. But let’s back up a bit to understand how and why she got this role.

Film Development Background

Vicki Hornbostel

Vicki Hornbostel

Blacklegged ticks carry pathogens that cause disease, including Lyme disease. The nymphal stage of this tick poses the greatest risk, because it is small and hard to detect on humans and pets, and it can carry the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. People and pets are often bitten by ticks from their own yards. Tick bite prevention education in Lyme-endemic regions of the northeastern United States has relied primarily on distribution of text-based materials and delivery of in-person presentations. Such prevention materials have commonly promoted personal protection measures, such as performing daily tick checks and wearing repellent, and have included information about managing backyard ticks using strategies such as tick-safe landscaping and applying tick-killing pesticides (also known as acaricides).

Despite the existence of Lyme-prevention educational materials, we have observed that people are still confused about tickborne disease prevention. People have questions especially about residential acaricide use: Should I apply acaricide to my yard? Is chemical acaricide safe? Where and when do I apply it? And how often? Should I use a natural or organic acaricide? Sharing text-based information, especially via in-person methods, may not easily reach homeowners who have such questions.

How to Clear Up Confusion About Residential Acaricide Use—and Casting Fran Tick

Our team at the Western Connecticut State University Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory and the Ridgefield Connecticut Department of Health sought to clear up confusion about residential tick management, specifically surrounding backyard acaricide use. Studies show that one well-timed application of a pyrethroid-based acaricide to targeted areas of one’s backyard is effective for managing nymphal blacklegged ticks. We wondered how we could convey evidence-based information about safe and judicious acaricide use in an engaging way that could also be shared online and via social media. Studies have shown that short, story-based narrative films with engaging characters and humor can effectively communicate health information. So, the Spray Safe, Play Safe film series was born, and so was Fran Tick. In October, my colleagues and I published a report in the Journal of Medical Entomology that shares results from an evaluation we conducted on the films’ effectiveness in increasing homeowner confidence in backyard tick management.

How Do We Make Films? We Are Scientists!

We partnered with the Town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, Health Department and WCSU Media Services to produce five short films. First, we had to write the scripts. We focused each of the five films around a key tick management topic:

  1. blacklegged ticks and Lyme disease;
  2. residential tick management and personal protection;
  3. acaricide safety and natural products;
  4. acaricides available to the homeowner; and
  5. how to choose a tick management professional or do it yourself.

To appeal to a northeastern U.S. audience, we crafted a story about residents in a Lyme-endemic New England neighborhood who are planning a block party. We meet these relatable characters at the neighborhood bus stop. Each character represents a common homeowner point of view: a newcomer who has never lived in a Lyme disease-endemic area; a neighbor who favors natural products and is concerned about the environmental and human impacts of synthetic acaricides; a neighbor who is not afraid of ticks or Lyme disease and feels disease risk reports are overblown; a neighbor who is very afraid of ticks and shares prevalent yet incorrect notions about ticks; and the local “Tick Doctor,” a neighbor who is a medical entomologist specializing in tickborne disease prevention.

After a year of writing and rewriting scripts, we recruited volunteers well-known in their communities, including local residents, business owners, children, and town officials—even a First Selectman—to act in the films. We shot the films over a four-month period. Fran Tick added an element of humor and surprise as she surreptitiously appeared in each film in the series. Fran’s appearance is a reminder that ticks may be nearby, lest we forget.

We hosted a premiere event at a popular community playhouse with over 200 attendees, including local families and health department personnel. Because of generous support from the Western Connecticut Health Network (now Nuvance Health) and other sponsors, the event featured free catered barbecue, a tick-safe clothing fashion show, giveaways, and photo ops on the “green” carpet with Fran Tick. Before watching the films, attendees completed a pre-film survey about their confidence, attitudes, and behavior related to residential tick management. A month later, we distributed post-film surveys to film premiere attendees. We posted the Spray Safe, Play Safe films (see full series of films in the video below) to a project-dedicated website, www.spraysafeplaysafe.org/, and to YouTube.

Films Increase Homeowner Confidence in Residential Tick Management

Did the Spray Safe, Play Safe films help clarify information about backyard acaricide use? The survey results say yes. Survey respondents’ confidence in four aspects of residential tick management increased significantly after viewing the films: identifying the riskiest areas in their yards for ticks; using personal protective measures to prevent tick bites; using tick-safe landscaping; and using tick control products. In the post-film survey group, 16 percent more respondents reported implementing tick-safe landscaping. The majority (66 percent) of respondents reported that watching the Spray Safe, Play Safe films helped them understand backyard tick management a “great deal” or “a lot.”

More studies are needed to understand the barriers to using effective residential tick management strategies. Our results show, though, that short, story-based films can be an effective and sustainable tool for tick bite prevention education. When distributed via the internet and social media platforms, short films can potentially reach a larger audience than paper-based or in-person education. And having a human-sized tick mascot like Fran Tick in the films may help engage an audience.

Vicki Hornbostel is a research assistant and project coordinator at the Western Connecticut State University Tickborne Disease and Prevention Laboratory. She earned her master’s degree in environmental studies at the Yale School of Forestry. Email: hornbostelv@wcsu.edu.

Photos courtesy of Western Connecticut State University Tickborne Disease and Prevention Laboratory, unless otherwise noted.

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