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Tick talk

Safety tips from a lab devoted to tick research

While the peak of New England tick season doesn’t usually come until July, the prevalence of ticks may be growing—and so might the cases of tickborne illnesses. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that about 476,000 Americans contract and are treated for Lyme disease each year, with some experiencing long-term physical effects. Fortunately, UMass Amherst is home to the Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ), which is dedicated to studying how ticks transmit zoonotic diseases and how we can develop new, better methods of protection.

The LMZ, led by Professor Stephen Rich, has been testing ticks from all over North America since 2006 to see what diseases they carry, as well as which of those diseases are transmittable to humans, and how. Partnering with local and national researchers and foundations, the LMZ has tracked trends over time to provide valuable insights for public health officials.

The lab recently received a $10 million CDC grant enabling it to create the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEWVEC). NEWVEC is a network of New England-based researchers (including those from the University of Maine, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Rhode Island) dedicated to conducting operational research, training the next generation of vector biology, and building communities of practice. According to microbiologist and UMass professor Guang Xu, “Bringing together multidisciplinary research groups and public health practitioners allows for collaboration between traditional entomology, modern molecular biology, and epidemiology in the study of ticks and tick-borne diseases. This collaboration has not only advanced our knowledge of ticks but also provided an opportunity for training the next generation of entomologists.”

Though still a young center, NEWVEC has already created multiple targeted projects. “We launched in late 2022,” says Rich, “but the big news is that we recently hired Nolan Fernandez ’15, ’17MS as the NEWVEC program coordinator. Nolan leads Project ITCH (which stands for Is Tick Control Helping?)—our region-wide effort to sample residential backyards to figure out what is working (and not working) to reduce ticks.”

Project ITCH began in the spring of 2023, when it sent out an internet-based survey to New England residents about their efforts to minimize tick risks in their own backyards. Fernandez and his team are now collating the survey results and will soon offer free property evaluations and disseminate the results so people know how to stay safer.

Professor Andrew Lover, who is also working on the project, adds, “By trying to understand the factors of the ‘what, how, and why’ of homeowners’ decisions about the control of ticks around their property… and what factors drive their decision-making, we can better understand both the human-tick interface and the health systems facets. This will be crucial toward developing evidence-based strategies for public health response.” So far, over 4,200 residents have taken the survey, which is still open to responses.

How is Lyme disease transmitted?

The Lyme disease bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) can be found in the mid-gut of the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick. In order for humans (or other animals) to get infected, the pathogen has to break through the thick linings of the gut and the hemocoel (the wall of the open circulatory system) of the tick to cross into the tick’s salivary glands.

The weird part? The Lyme pathogen doesn’t actually make the protein it needs to break through the bloodstream barrier. It takes that protein from its host’s blood. Once the pathogen enters a new host, it only stays in the blood for a day or two—just long enough to create a protective protein shell—before moving into tissues and causing symptoms. Because it is not typically found in the blood, detecting the presence of living bacteria in an infected patient can be challenging. That is why most Lyme tests aim to detect antibodies that the immune system produces in response to the infection, but those antibodies can stay in the body long after the bacteria have been wiped out.

Myth Busters

Don’t squeeze a tick; it will push more Lyme bacteria into your body. FALSE!

Based on the anatomy of a tick, squeezing it cannot physically introduce more Lyme pathogens into your bloodstream. It is best to remove ticks without squeezing them because they may carry other potentially harmful pathogens, but the biggest priority is to remove ticks ASAP and sanitize the bite area.

Ticks burrow their heads into the skin to suck out your blood. FALSE!

The only part of the tick that punctures the skin is a very small tube-like structure that acts as a straw. Our bodies may react to ticks’ saliva, causing our skin to swell around the tick’s head. However, that is not the reason ticks are hard to remove. Their saliva acts as a sort of temporary cement to keep their mouths in place.

If you get Lyme, you might become allergic to red meat. FALSE!

Alpha-gal syndrome, the cause of red meat sensitivity, isn’t actually a symptom of Lyme (or any other infection). More research is needed, but researchers today say it is a physiological reaction from bites attributed most commonly to lone star ticks. While scientists believe alpha-gal syndrome can be caused by other types of ticks, there isn’t enough evidence yet to determine which ones.

Tick Tips

To keep yourself safe, make sure to:

  • Wear repellant (or repellant-treated clothing). DEET or Permethrin work best, but you’ll need to reapply regularly.
  • Reduce the amount of skin you have exposed when you’re going into tick-heavy areas like tall grasses and forests.
  • Mow your lawn. Ticks like tall grass and shade, so keeping your grass short can help keep them away.
  • Do a thorough tick check whenever you’ve been in tick-heavy areas. Make sure to look and feel for them because they can be very small.
  • If you think you were exposed to ticks, put your clothes in the dryer right away to kill any other ticks that might have latched on.

What to do if you find a tick on your body:

  • Pull it off immediately.
  • Put it in a plastic bag (live if possible).
  • Wash your hands and the location of the tick bite.
  • Keep an eye on the site of the bite for any signs of infection.
  • Send the tick in to test it for pathogens, including Lyme disease.
  • Go to a doctor to see if they recommend antibiotics.

Want to learn more? The Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment lists additional tick-testing resources. You can also hear an interview with Professor Stephen Rich, director of the Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ) on an episode of Tick Boot Camp.