Editorial: Tick testing: the $50 question

Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2014
We applaud the $110,000 grant from the governor’s office that allows University of Massachusetts scientists to provide no-cost tick testing to people in 32 communities across the state, including 10 in Franklin County.

We hope this action will spur other communities, such as those in Hampshire County, to begin allocating such funds for tick testing as well.

UMass scientists have long been searching for a way to not charge individuals the current $50 lab fee for testing. This grant is a step in the right direction but it is only for one year and only benefits the chosen communities.

The grant allows up to 100 people in each of the selected communities to have the test done without having to pay the fee. Each town can submit 50 tests in the spring and 50 tests in the fall.

The state grant breaks down to around $3,000 per town for the testing. This strikes us as a small amount for towns to contribute to the needed fight against tick-born illnesses such as Lyme disease.

We believe communities should start considering yearly allocations for the tick tests. We can’t expect the state to come up with the funds for all 351 cities and towns.

The grant comes amid an increased effort to connect the pests to illnesses, including Lyme disease. There were nearly 30,000 confirmed cases of the tick-borne disease in 2009, and rates are on the rise in New England and other northern states, according to recent research.

The UMass lab began testing ticks for pathogens in 2006. While the number of people using the service has grown, the grant-funded testing will increase the volume, giving researchers more data to work with.

Results for the tick’s “owner” are being entered in a public database, http://stats.tickdiseases.org/. The information is anonymous and anyone can search the UMass Laboratory of Medical Zoology website and get information by ZIP code. It can be helpful to those wanting to know what sorts of ticks and pathogens have been identified in their areas and when.

The UMass lab tests show which of 11 parasites the analyzed tick is carrying — information that can be helpful to doctors and can aid in tracking the prevalence of tick diseases and the presence of pathogens that can cause disease.

The state 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. The disease is now considered endemic in all of Massachusetts, according to a statement provided by UMass.

Those participating in the state grant program, called the Tick-Borne Disease Network, are the public health departments in Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Gill, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe and Shelburne. Anyone in the participating communities who wants a tick tested should carefully remove it using tweezers and place it in a sealable plastic bag. On the LMZ’s website, www.TickReport.com, they can complete an online submittal form, write the order number provided on the plastic bag, and send it in an envelope with the tick to the address indicated on the website. Residents of nonparticipating towns can have a tick tested for a $50 fee at the same website.

The communities chosen for the grant program were selected somewhat by happenstance, not by whether they had higher-than-average tick populations. In some cases it was because researchers had relationships with boards of health; in others, because the communities expressed a interest.

It is our hope that all state communities will help their residents pay for this test. Doing so is a public health service.