This college program can keep you healthy
You find a tick on your leg.
You’re informed enough to know that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends carefully removing the critter with a pair of fine-tipped tweezers applied as close to skin’s surface as possible. Then, you pull upward with steady, even pressure. You carefully place the tick in a plastic bag and seal it.
Finally, you thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub or soap and water.
Is it carrying pathogens that may cause disease?
Is it a deer tick? A dog tick? Maybe it’s the latest to arrive on Cape Cod, the Lone Star tick.
Hopefully, it’s harmless, but, the worrying intensifies.
Even a doctor can’t tell offhand if the tick is carrying one of at least five potential pathogens, including a newly detected one, Powassan virus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns can cause long-term neurologic problems and often requires hospitalization.
Fortunately, there is a route you can take. You can send the tick to college – seriously.
UMass, Barnstable County and CCHC
Barnstable County has partnered with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology’s TickReport program, which tests the tick and provides a complete analysis of any diseases it was carrying, usually within three business days.
The test normally costs $100, but a grant of $30,000 from Cape Cod Healthcare’s Community Benefits department has reduced that amount to only $15 per test for Cape Codders, explained Stephen Rich, Ph.D., director of the TickReport.
The grant subsidizes as many as 400 tests a year.
“Cape Cod Healthcare’s subsidy should sustain testing through August, which covers the prime tick season,” noted Rich. The test has the capacity to check for as many as seven pathogens.
“If we could, we’d provide the service at no cost, but the reality is that we must recover costs for personnel, equipment and supplies by charging for the service,” he added.
This is the fourth year Cape Cod Healthcare has supported the tick testing effort.
“They really like the work we are doing,” said Larry Dapsis, an entomologist and deer tick expert for the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension Service.
The tick testing effort is especially important because Massachusetts reports the fifth-highest incidence rate of Lyme disease cases in the country, and Barnstable County has the fourth highest rate in the state, he said.
And the more recently introduced pathogens are not yet well understood.
Barnstable is “by far” the most involved of only three counties in the state that actively participates in the program, according to Rich.
“I can’t say enough about the partnership and especially Cape Cod Healthcare’s support.”
Rich explained that while the test assesses risk of exposure, it should not be interpreted as medical diagnosis.
“We commonly compare a tick test to testing your home for dangerous exposures such as radon. Such tests are not intended to diagnose disease but to measure risks of exposure and use that information to act accordingly,” he said.
A Growing Database
Not only is the program helping prevent potential health issues for those bitten by ticks, the support also contributes to a growing and powerful database that is providing unprecedented insights into who is being bitten, when they get bitten, and what pathogens those ticks are carrying, he explained.
“Previous studies of tick disease looked either at human disease cases or ticks captured in the field. Both kinds of studies are important, but they don’t track the missing link between people and infected ticks,” added Rich.
That includes additional data on Powassan virus, which has been diagnosed in 13 cases in the past three years in the state, including one so far on Cape Cod, according to Dapsis.
Besides Lyme and Powassan, tick-borne infections including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and relapsing fever have been detected on the Cape, said Dapsis.
The invaluable part about the TickReport program is that it can tell a tick bite victim whether the insect was carrying a disease, Rich said. It’s a lot like rabies. If the animal can be tested and is rabies-free, you don’t have to go through a battery of painful shots.
Even knowing the tick is infected is not enough, based on the diversity of diseases they carry, he emphasized. There are different treatments for the different infections.
Dapsis emphasized that the TickReport database is proving invaluable to his work and that of physicians treating patients.
“With the UMass data, we are learning that many ticks on the Cape are co-infected, meaning they are carrying two, three and sometimes as many as four pathogens,” he explained. “This is significant because it contributes to more accurate diagnoses and treatments.”
Data from TickReport has helped Rich and his team determine that about 30 percent of nymph ticks and 50 percent of adults are infected.
How To Order
Every tick report starts with a client ordering a test online at TickReport.com.
The first step is to enter address information. If you live in the Cape’s 15 towns, you are automatically directed to the subsidized program.
Personal contact information is only used to send you results, he explained. Some generic information about you and your tick bite are included in passive surveillance, but there is no link with personal identity.
“For example, we may report the number of ticks found on adults aged 21-45 in a given town, but no details of those adults are ever shared. The purpose of reporting the aggregate data is to let other people learn about risks,” he said.
While Dapsis voices great appreciation for the Tick Report program – and constantly encourages audiences to avail themselves of the service – he also emphasizes the need to prevent tick bites in the first place.
“Prevention and education are critical. Dress appropriately when you are outside hiking or gardening or walking your dog.” Click here for ways to protect yourself.
Key Words: Cape Cod Healthcare, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Babesiosis, Larry Dapsis, Cape Cod Healthcare Community Benefits, deer tick, Lone Star Tick, Ehrlichiosis, red meat allergy, Lyme's Disease, Powassan Virus, dog tick, UMass Amherst Laboratory of Medical Zoology, Barnstable County Cooperative Extension Service, Dr. Stephen Rich, Tick Report, anaphylactic shock