UMass team lands $427K grant to pinpoint high-risk tick locations

  • In this May 15, 2017 file photo, ticks are displayed that were collected by South Street Veterinary Services in Pittsfield. THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE VIA AP FILE/BEN GARVER

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2020 12:10:39 PM

AMHERST — Traditional tick surveillance methods involve a process that’s “really time-consuming and tedious, and most cities and towns in Massachusetts just don’t have the capacity,” said Andrew Lover, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. To test areas for high risk of tick-borne illness, field workers must drag a white cloth through a field, then tweeze off and manually count any ticks they capture.

With support from a recently awarded $427,043 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Lover and his team at UMass plan to pioneer a new tick surveillance method that is people-focused, less labor-intensive, economically viable and sustainable. Using results from this upcoming study, Lover hopes to determine locations that pose a particularly high risk for transmission of tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease.

“The new project, instead of trying to just focus on the ticks, is to use people who have had exposure and you know have been infected as a tool to understand where the highest risk locations may be,” Lover said.

Drawing from patients at UMass Health Services and Cooley Dickinson Health Care, the study will include two groups of participants: a group of people who already have a tick-borne illness, and a control group that does not have a tick-borne illness. 

Participants will be interviewed on subjects such a whether they own pets and how much time they spend indoors, then given a small GPS data logger to carry for about two weeks as they go about normal outdoor activities. Researchers will then use these logged locations and run statistical tests to determine areas where people are likely picking up tick-borne illnesses. 

After identifying locations that seem to present a high or low risk, graduate researchers will use the existing tick-finding method to validate data gathered by the new method.

If high-risk locations can be pinpointed, measures such as clearing vegetation, landscaping with wood chips or marking the locations with signs warning of the tick-borne illness risks can help to lower the chances that people will become infected.

“The idea is if we can validate it and it works well, we’ll hopefully start working with local boards of health in Massachusetts and elsewhere,” Lover said. 

Also included in the team are graduate students Teah Snyder and Johanna Ravenhurst and co-investgator Stephen Rich. Rich is the director of TickReport, a UMass service that people can send ticks to for testing of disease-carrying microbes. The TickReport service will test ticks from surveyed areas for the prevalence of disease-carrying pathogens. 

Epidemiologists note that generally, 80% of disease transmission happens in 20% of locations, Lover said, meaning that small areas could contribute greatly to the number of tick-borne infections in the area. 

The lack of an existing, efficient tick-surveillance method does not stem from a lack of need for this tracking — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “has recognized that tick-borne illness has increased a lot,” Lover said, “but the current surveillance methods just don’t work very well.”

In 2018, the CDC reported that cases of tick-borne diseases rose from 48,610 to 59,249 between 2016 and 2017. Lover hopes to begin the study in the spring. 

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at
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