Governor’s Community Innovation Challenge Awards $111K for State’s First ‘Tick-Borne Disease Network’

Funds support tick testing by UMass Amherst laboratory free to residents of 32 towns
Stephen Rich

AMHERST, Mass. ­– Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor announced today that the Bedford, Mass. Board of Health, on behalf of 31 other partner towns, will receive $111,000 from the governor’s Community Innovation Challenge Grant program to form the state’s first Tick-Borne Disease Network (TBDN) for surveillance of ticks and tick-borne diseases. The announcement was at the Massachusetts State House.

Towns will use the Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which will receive, identify, test and report the occurrence of ticks and associated diseases to residents, their boards of health and the state Department of Public Health. Medical zoologist Stephen Rich, LMZ director, helped to craft the proposal for Bedford. He says the idea started as a network of public health departments in five towns in Middlesex County, which grew when 10 Franklin county towns asked to join, followed by all 15 towns of Barnstable County on Cape Cod, plus Nantucket.

“It’s been exciting to be a part of truly collaborative effort between town health officials and the University. And because of this effort, more than 30 towns in four counties are able to provide free tick testing to their residents over the coming year,” he notes. “We hope and expect this will be such a success that it will continue in future years and more of the 351 towns and municipalities in Massachusetts will participate.” 

LMZ will test 100 ticks from each participating town, 50 each in the spring season and 50 in the fall, on contract for the new tick network for $30 each, a discount from the $140 currently charged to the public to test for three important tick pathogens.  The reduction is possible because with higher volumes and fixed funding the LMZ can meet costs and provide high quality service, Rich says.

The program will provide estimates of pathogen prevalence and allow each town to see rates of tick biting activity in real time, the LMZ director says. Each tick will be tested for Borrelia burgdorferi, associated with Lyme disease, as well as Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Babesia microti, the principal emerging and potentially lethal pathogens that cause Anaplasmosis and Babesiosis, respectively. Distribution of these pathogens in ticks is poorly understood and likely varies substantially across the state, he adds.

Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Surveillance statistics show that in Massachusetts, confirmed cases of Lyme disease have increased from 23.9 cases per 100,000/population in 2004 to 60.9/100,000 in 2008 and the disease is now considered endemic in all of Massachusetts, public health officials note.

At present the LMZ at UMass Amherst collects thousands of ticks, dead or alive, from across the country to help map the distribution of different types and categorize the many disease-causing pathogens they carry. The service helps families and their physicians as well as epidemiologists, says Rich, and is a good example of how the university’s flagship campus can partner with communities to meet concerns about a very real threat to public health.

Established in 2006, the LMZ tested about 2,000 ticks from 40 states last year, Rich says. Building its database continually expands its usefulness to epidemiologists who track the growing number of disease causing pathogens carried by these ticks.

Rich explains, “We’re not practicing medicine or diagnosing disease, but we can help provide clues for patients and physicians. It’s like radon testing. If you have your house tested for radon and it’s positive, you don’t go to your oncologist and tell him or her that you have cancer. But still, your exposure level is important information for both you and the doctor. It’s the same thing with ticks. If you know the tick that bit you tested positive for a pathogen that causes a certain disease, you can take that information to your doctor. It can help to narrow down your diagnosis more quickly.”

Further, he adds, “These are just the benefits realized by individuals who have their ticks tested. The real game changer is the extraordinary epidemiological opportunity to quantify who’s being bitten, when these bites occur, and what the ticks may be transmitting.”

In addition to the Nantucket Health Department, Franklin County participating public health departments are in Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Gill, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe and Shelburne. In Middlesex County participating departments are in Acton, Bedford, Carlisle, Concord, Lincoln and Winchester. In Barnstable County they are Barnstable, Brewster, Bourne, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Falmouth, Harwich, Mashpee, Orleans, Provincetown, Sandwich, Truro, Wellfleet and Yarmouth.

 

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