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Study: NC chiggers with bacterium that causes disease not previously seen in US

Scanning electron microscopy image of a chigger.
Loganathan Ponnusamy
N.C. State University
Scanning electron microscopy image of a chigger.

A bacterium that causes a disease not previously reported in the United States has been detected in North Carolina.

Researchers at North Carolina State University and UNC Greensboro found the bacterium in chiggers, microscopic red mites. The bacterium causes a disease called scrub typhus.

Researchers stress that scrub typhus has not yet been detected in animals or people in North Carolina.

Scrub typhus can cause fever, headache and body aches — and can be fatal if left untreated. It's usually found in Asia and the Pacific, but in recent years, it's also been detected in Africa and the Middle East.

The study sampled and tested chiggers found at ten different North Carolina state parks. Researchers say more information is still needed.

“We don’t know if this is a recent introduction into the state or if the bacterium has been here for years,” said R. Michael Roe, co-author of the study. “We also don’t know if the infected chiggers found in North Carolina actually will cause disease; this has to be determined in future work.”

Kaiying Chen, the lead author of the paper, added that researchers "don’t have information about whether the chigger infection rate is decreasing or increasing."

Researchers are resampling chiggers in the recreational park sites to see if their findings remain consistent.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.