Lyme Disease Education Pays Public Health Dividends

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health , Monomoy Regional Middle School

The sixth graders, including Suzie Sheeran (left) and Victoria Letendre, each received a sheet of temporary tattoos with life-sized representations of ticks. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM About 20 years ago, Barnstable County brought Lyme disease education to the schools. They’re still doing it today, and there’s reason to believe the effort is paying off.

Entomologist Larry Dapsis, the deer tick project coordinator for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, said he was approached by a Harvard researcher who was intrigued by the fact that Barnstable County is the only county in the state where the incidence of Lyme is not increasing.

“They were confused as to why, and asked a few questions. That’s when they found out I am managing a super aggressive outreach program,” Dapsis said.

The program includes lectures and slideshows for civic groups, informational tables at fairs, regular media outreach – and a school outreach program that provides Lyme education to just about every public school student on Cape Cod at least once. This month, the program is visiting Monomoy Middle School.

“How many of you have been bitten by a tick?” Public Health Nurse Rita Mitchell asked a class of sixth graders Friday. Most of the hands in the classroom went up. Mitchell has come out of retirement to help with the Lyme education program, which she’s been doing since she and former county entomologist Dave Simser started visiting the schools two decades ago.

Ticks, Mitchell told the students, have been around for thousands of years.

“They traced them back to the dinosaurs,” she said. On Cape Cod, the most prevalent species is the dog tick, which can spread some diseases but is mostly a nuisance pest. There are also lone star ticks, which were once found only in the Southeast but have now extended their range to include New England, “possibly due to climate change,” she said. Lone star ticks are different from other species, she said.

“They have eyes. They can see us. They can chase us,” Mitchell said, prompting some squirms from students in the classroom. Moving as fast as a spider, lone star ticks can also transmit disease. But the focus of the lesson was on deer ticks, which carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

“How many of you think ticks can fly?” she asked the class. No students did. “How many of you think ticks can jump?” Most hands went up. “Actually, all they can do is crawl,” Mitchell said. And deer ticks feed only three times in their two-year lives. Cold winters don’t faze ticks, she added, because their bodies contain glycerol, a kind of natural antifreeze.

The most dangerous time for deer ticks starts about four weeks from now, when the tiny tick nymphs begin searching for a blood meal. Present mostly between May and July, nymphs are extremely hard to spot because they are about the size of a poppy seed.

“The most important thing we can do is a daily tick check,” Mitchell said. The best time to do a tick check is in the shower, feeling the skin for unusual bumps. Particularly for adults, spotting a tick nymph can be nearly impossible, she added. Removing it promptly reduces the risk of infection.

Mitchell explained the proper technique for removing a tick – using a fine-tipped pair of tweezers, grabbing the tick as close to the head as possible and pulling straight up – and then saving the tick for testing. Though a new blood test is in development that can screen people for several tick-borne diseases, the best approach is still to test the tick itself.

Thanks to a grant from Cape Cod Health Care, ticks can be tested for just $15, rather than the usual price of $50. To learn more or to submit a tick for testing, visit