Medical zoologist Stephen Rich can't wait to get his hands on your ticks. As head of the Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Rich and colleagues collect thousands of ticks, dead or alive, extracted from people and pets and sent in from across the country, to help map the distribution of different kinds of the blood-sucking arachnids, and to categorize the many disease-causing pathogens they carry.
"This service helps families and their physicians as well as epidemiologists," says Rich, who makes frequent presentations to medical professionals around the Northeast. "We wanted to have a way to expand our research so that it could have a positive impact on the community." The tick and pathogen identification service costs $40 per tick.
The LMZ's research activities and tick identification service are particularly important at this time of year, because fall is one of two peak tick seasons per year. Most people aren't aware that there are two tick activity peaks, one starting in June and the second from about October until the snow flies, says Rich.
Ticks prefer cooler temperatures, which is also prime time for human outdoor activities. Right now, while families are out enjoying beautiful fall foliage and crisp autumn air, tick bites are on the rise and the risk of contacting a tick-borne disease is high.
The LMZ uses the same methods for this public service work as for our academic research to test for different disease pathogens. Rich says, "We've been doing this since 2006. It's really taken off; this year we'll test about 2,000 ticks from 40 states."
He and the student-staffed LMZ at UMass Amherst want to increase public awareness of this second peak tick season and offer information to give people more peace of mind about what they have or have not been exposed to. Also, by building up the database of tick types sent in, where they came from and whether they were found on a dog, human or horse, for example, the lab keeps expanding its usefulness to epidemiologists tracking the many confusing tick-borne diseases.
Rich explains, "We're not practicing medicine or diagnosing disease, but we can help provide clues for physicians. It's like radon testing. If you have your house tested for radon and it's positive, you don't go to your oncologist and tell him or her that you have cancer. But still, your exposure level is important information for both you and the doctor. It's the same thing with ticks. If you know the tick that bit you tested positive for a pathogen that causes a certain disease, you can take that information to your doctor. It can help to narrow down your diagnosis more quickly and in some cases we're aware of, it's a game changer."
When a person or a pet is bitten by a tick, the medical zoologist says, the first step is to remove it safely. Next, he hopes that instead of throwing the tick in the trash or toilet, people will send it to the LMZ via the website, www.tickdiseases.org/.
Results are usually available within three to five business days, a relatively quick turnaround time that can be very helpful, as one UMass Amherst alumnus found after his five-year-old daughter was bitten by a tick. "We found it on her head, fully engorged," the father says, "and she was already having flu-like symptoms, so we took her to the doctor." Their physician told the parents to watch their daughter's symptoms to see if she got worse. "But we weren't comfortable with that," the dad notes.
So he did some research and found the LMZ at UMass Amherst. "Professor Rich and his crew basically held my hand throughout the whole process," the worried father says. "I had my results in a few days. Thankfully, the results were negative, so it was just the flu."
He and his wife were very relieved, he recalled. "If we had just followed the doctor's instructions, we'd still be waiting and wondering if she was OK. You can't appreciate the peace of mind this service provides until you go through something like this."
Results are given not only to the tick's "owner," but are also compiled in a public database. Data are anonymous, but Rich feels that having them publically available increases general awareness. Also, because anyone can search the LMZ database by ZIP code, it can be helpful for someone who can't afford the test fee just to know what sorts of ticks and pathogens have been identified in their area, and when.
Rich points out, "We test the ticks that are actually on people. This means we can capture what took years to understand using the old method, which was testing ticks and people separately. We get it all in one season, all at once. We know who's been bit, when they got bit, and what the ticks that bit them may be carrying. It's a fine example of how research at the university translates to community engagement and outreach."
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