State grant allows University of Massachusetts researchers to offer free tick testing in 32 communities, including 10 in Franklin County



Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

AMHERST — A $111,000 grant from the governor’s office will let scientists at the University of Massachusetts provide tick testing to people in 32 communities, including 10 in Franklin County, at no cost to them. It is an increased effort to connect the pests to illnesses, including Lyme disease.

“It tells us who is getting bitten by ticks, when and where and what the ticks may be transmitting,” said Stephen Rich, director of the UMass Laboratory of Medical Zoology.

Those participating in the program, called the Tick-Borne Disease Network, 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.

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Though the UMass lab began testing ticks for pathogens in 2006, it charges $50 per test. While the number of people using the service has grown — 2,000 ticks from humans, pets and horses in 40 states were tested last year — the grant-funded testing will increase the volume, giving researchers more data to work with, said Rich. While not a tool to diagnose or treat an ailment, the effort will give more people information that may prove helpful to their doctors should puzzling symptoms occur, Rich said.

“I compare it to radon testing,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “If you find you have radon in your basement, it doesn’t mean you have cancer, but it is a piece of information about risk or exposure that might be useful to your doctor.”

Ticks are tested at UMass for Borrelian burdorferi, the pathogen associated with Lyme disease, and Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Babesia microti, two principal emerging and potentially lethal pathogens that cause anaplasmosis, which produces flu-like symptoms, and babesiosis, which can mimic malaria in severe cases. Distribution of these pathogens in ticks is poorly understood and likely varies substantially across the state, Rich said. He expects a larger database will give scientists a clearer picture.

“We have information about what ticks are out in the woods and information about who is getting sick, but we haven’t had the information linking the ticks with the people, believe it or not.”

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

Rich offered an example of how the tick testing changes the way information is recorded. A person who lives in the Berkshires but is bitten while vacationing on Cape Cod could have the tick tested and, if pathogens are found and illness develops, the case would be labeled as a Cape disease, not one originating in the Berkshires. That is a valuable distinction for epidemiologists, but not possible to make by just examining a sick patient, Rich said. Thus the increased volume of test results will help track the growing number of pathogens carried by deer, dog and Lone Star ticks.

Results, both for the tick’s “owner” and the public database, are available in about a week, Rich said. The information is anonymous, but because anyone can search the UMass Laboratory of Medical Zoology database 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.

UMass scientists have long been searching for a way to take the financial burden for testing off individuals, Rich said. “The grant is going to let us do that for a year and then we’ll have to figure out another way,” he said.

The money, offered through the governor’s Community Innovation Challenge program, will let UMass test 50 ticks in the spring, and 50 in the fall from each participating community. Rich says the cost amounts to $3,000 per municipality, an expense he hopes the participating communities and other municipalities in the state will shoulder once the grant runs out.

“I’m told $3,000 in a town budget is no small matter,” he said. “I don’t know the politics of it or how it’s going to work, but we want to get the word out.”

He said his hope is that a larger volume of tests done will allow his lab to cut costs. However, he noted, it can’t cover the expense itself. “The money will have to come from somewhere.”

The communities chosen for the grant program were selected somewhat by happenstance, Rich said, 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.

“In the future, the hope is to bring more towns in,” he said.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.




 


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