Health: Low-cost Tick Testing Program Returns In 2017

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

Tick brochure.

CHATHAM Send a tick to college?

It's a catchy slogan for a vital public health program. With a grant from Cape Cod Healthcare, the Laboratory of Medical Zoology at UMass Amherst is once again offering low-cost testing of ticks for a host of potentially serious diseases, including Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan and relapsing fever.

Public health officials say the best approach is to avoid being bitten by ticks in the first place. But people who find a tick attached to them are encouraged to carefully remove the parasite as quickly as possible, grasping it by the head with fine-tipped tweezers and pulling straight up. But rather than killing the tick, it's best to have it identified by experts and tested for disease, Cape Cod Cooperative Extension entomologist Larry Dapsis said.

“It's so simple it's funny. There's an online submission process; you go to, and it will recognize your ZIP code,” he said. The site will recognize Cape Cod residents and qualify them for a discount that allows a tick to be tested for just $15. People then place the tick in a sealed Ziploc bag with the work order number provided by the website.

“Mail it out to them, and once they receive it, they guarantee you're going to get your results in three business days,” he said.

Finding a tick is no reason for panic. Not all ticks transmit diseases, and infected ticks generally need to be attached for 15 minutes or longer to do so. It's not even a sure thing if the tick comes back positive for one or more pathogens, Dapsis said.

“It doesn't mean you're going to get sick,” he said. But it does mean that the possibility exists. “Then you have hard data that, if you're not feeling good, now you can talk to your doctor,” he said. But because tick-borne illnesses can be extremely serious, testing them is a very prudent step. “We say, one bite can change your life,” Dapsis said.

The UMass lab provides detailed information about the pathogens and can even estimate how long the tick had been attached. The medical community increasingly sees the value of tick testing as a diagnostic tool for patients, as evidenced by the grant support from Cape Cod Healthcare. In February, Cape Cod Healthcare announced that the tick testing program would be on this year's list of Community Benefits Annual Strategic Grants, which provided more than $245,000 to a handful of projects that fight chronic or infectious diseases and mental health issues.

Though people start spending more time outdoors in the warm weather, there is a risk of tick bites all year long, as long as the temperature is above freezing and there is a break in the snow cover. Adult stage ticks are active in the winter and early spring, and around the end of this month, nymphs begin emerging. Nymphs, which actively quest for blood meals through the summer, are particularly dangerous because they are hard to see.

“Something the size of a poppy seed is responsible for 85 percent of all tick-borne illnesses,” Dapsis said.

And while the focus often remains on Lyme disease, there are plenty of other dangerous diseases transmitted by ticks on Cape Cod. One of them is the Powassan virus, found in ticks collected at various Lower Cape sites last year. Though most who are exposed to the virus experience no symptoms, around 10 percent become severely ill or die. 

With the stakes so high, protection is the name of the game, Dapsis said.

“From my standpoint, it's permethrin-treated clothing and footwear, hands down,” he said. Available at all garden centers and other retailers, the spray is easily applied to pants, socks and shoes, and is very effective at killing ticks. It doesn't take a nature walk or a long hike in the woods to collect ticks; most tick bites happen from people working in their own yards. “I'm a fan of perimeter yard sprays,” Dapsis added. Commercial companies can apply a ribbon of pesticide around the edges of lawns a couple of times in the springtime to keep tick nymphs at bay. Each treatment is effective for two or three weeks, he said.

Dapsis doesn't tire of sharing the message about tick disease prevention and is leading a series of workshops this month. The educational effort is paying off, he said. Every county in Massachusetts, with the exception of Barnstable, has seen Lyme disease rates double or triple in the past eight or nine years.

“We're the only county in the state that has an outreach program,” he said. The program is so effective that it's being studied by the Harvard Medical School. When it comes to tick testing and tick bite prevention, the message is important.

“And people are hearing it,” he said.

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