For Tick Season, UMass Amherst Lab Provides Testing Service

People across the nation should send ticks for identification and disease tests

AMHERST, Mass. – It’s tick season again, and this year residents of 32 Massachusetts towns have a golden opportunity to receive free, expert identification of ticks and the disease-causing pathogens they carry, with testing provided by the Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The two-year, free tick-testing program funded by the governor’s Community Innovation Challenge Grant helped to establish the state’s first Tick-Borne Disease Network (TBDN) for surveillance of ticks and tick-borne diseases. The LMZ, which is also supported by the UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences, identifies, tests and reports ticks and associated diseases to residents, local boards of health and the state Department of Public Health.

TBDN participating members are the Nantucket Health Department and public health departments in Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Gill, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe and Shelburne. In Middlesex County the member towns are 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.

For a $50 fee, people in other Massachusetts towns, New England and across the nation can also have their ticks tested for Borrelia burgdorferi, the pathogen associated with Lyme disease, for Anaplasma phagocytophilum and for Babesia microti, two principal emerging and potentially lethal pathogens that cause Anaplasmosis and Babesiosis. Distribution of these pathogens in ticks is poorly understood and likely varies substantially across the state, says LMZ director Stephen Rich.

Since 2006, the medical zoologist notes, the LMZ at UMass Amherst has tested a growing number of ticks extracted from people, pets and horses sent from around the country, about 2,000 from 40 states last year. Building its database continually expands the lab’s usefulness to epidemiologists who track the growing number of disease-causing pathogens carried by deer, dog and Lone Star ticks, he adds.

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

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.”

Specifically, the TBDN in participating Massachusetts towns will test at no cost 100 ticks from each, 50 in the spring and 50 in the fall, for the three important tick pathogens. With higher volumes and fixed funding, the LMZ can meet costs and provide high quality service, the LMZ director says.

Results are usually available within about a week, not only to the tick’s “owner,” but they are also compiled in a public database. Data are anonymous, but Rich feels that having them publically available increases general awareness. Also, because anyone can search the LMZ database by ZIP code, it can be helpful to those who can’t afford the fee just to know what sorts of ticks and pathogens have been identified in their area, and when.

Rich says, “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 enroll. We’re ready to work with any town or agencies that would like to implement TBDN in their town, which starts with finding ways to fund that effort. It costs about $3,000 per town to provide pre-paid tick testing to 100 residents and accompanying surveillance data for local boards of health.” 

The 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.