Newsflash: UMass Will Test Your Ticks for Lyme, Other Diseases

Using state funding, the University of Massachusetts Amherst plans to help state residents test ticks they’ve found at a reduced rate.

Since 2006, the school’s Laboratory of Medical Zoology (LMZ) has tested ticks from all 50 states for various transmittable illnesses and pathogens. Anyone concerned they’ve been bitten can mail the parasite in question to the UMass lab, have it tested, and get the results back within three business days.

Normal pricing ranges from $50 for a baseline DNA analysis of one tick to a $200 comprehensive package, which includes screening for 23 tick-borne illnesses. But, thanks to the state Department of Public Health’s $100,000 grant, the LMZ will do the testing for just $15 per critter.

That rate won’t last, though.

“We anticipate that this program will be over by early to mid-July. The subsidy is really going to go fast,” said Stephen Rich, a professor of microbiology and LMZ director, in a statement.

Are ticks getting more dangerous?

The grant comes on the heels of a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. From 2004 through 2016, researchers reported a 300-percent uptick in mosquito, tick, and flea bite-related illnesses. The analysis found the number of reported tick-borne diseases doubled during that 13-year period. That figure also makes up more than 60 percent of all mosquito-, tick-, and flea-related illnesses.

Since the UMass laboratory launched its TickReport testing program and database, researchers have analyzed more than 37,000 ticks, including over 12,400 in 2017. The LMZ expects to test between 18,000 and 20,000 for 2018.

Of the 23 diseases tested, Lyme disease comes out on top. Since 2006, 26.5 percent of all ticks screened have tested positive. The illness, spread by blacklegged ticks, causes someone to experience a combination of fever, headaches, fatigue, and a skin rash. If left untreated, it eventually spreads to the joints, heart, and nervous system.

More than just Lyme

But, Lyme disease is just one condition spread to humans. The LMZ also tests for anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and the lesser-known Powassan virus. Out of these four, Powassan is particularly rare. In fact, the CDC has recorded about 100 cases over the past 10 years. Yet, the disease may cause a combination of fever, vomiting, confusion, seizures, and memory loss, and may even lead to long-term neurologic problems.

Meanwhile, the LMZ plans to use half of the grant to cover the cost of Powassan virus testing on the first 1,000 ticks sent.

Of course, it’s important to note: Not all ticks transmit diseases. The type, time of year it’s found, and region all influence whether one poses a health risk.

As for the blacklegged ticks (also known as deer ticks) commonly found in the Northeast, the CDC says they typically need to be attached for 36 to 48 hours or longer before spreading Lyme disease. With this in mind, always thoroughly check your skin and clothing after outings in the woods.

What if you find a tick on your body? The LMZ advises removing it with a pair of tweezers, and washing the area with soap or antiseptic wipes. Then, mail the tick to the lab in a Ziploc bag.