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Health district gets grant for free tick tests

With tick season now in full swing, Franklin County’s Cooperative Public Health Service has launched a free tick test for residents in its 10 member towns, with help from a state grant.

The $111,300 Community Innovation Challenge grant will pay for residents of Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Gill, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe and Shelburne, along with 22 other Massachusetts towns, to have ticks tested at University of Massachusetts’ Laboratory of Medical Zoology.

The tests, which normally cost $40, show which of 11 parasites the analyzed tick is carrying — information that can be very helpful to the physician and can help in tracking the prevalence of tick diseases and the presence of pathogens that can cause disease, said Phoebe Walker, director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

The 10-town health district, which has erected 150 trail-head warning signs and launched a billboard campaign around the region to raise awareness of tick-borne diseases, saw 37 Lyme cases last year, 12 of them in Deerfield, 10 in Conway and eight in Buckland.

Walker said the district, now in its second year, is too new to compare the incidence of Lyme disease with other years, but added, “We certainly feel like we’re seeing a lot more than before.”

The grant pays for up to 100 tests per town by the LMZ, with data included in its Tick-Borne Disease Network.

Deer ticks will be tested for Lyme (Borrelia burgdorferi) as well as two other common pathogens, Anaplasma phagocytophilium, and Babesia microti. Results will be provided to residents to share with their medical provider, although it will not show whether the pathogen has been transmitted to a person who’s been bitten.

“Some of the things ticks carry are not as easy to catch as Lyme, and even with Lyme, people don’t always see the bulls-eye (rash symptom) — it isn’t clear,” said Walker.

But she added that if people find out that the tick that’s bitten them isn’t carrying Lyme or another pathogen that can cause disease, they can discover that and don’t have to take prophylactic antibiotics that they don’t necessarily need.

“In general, if people are finding a tick heavily embedded into them, they’re going to go to the doctor and may be given an antibiotic,” said Walker.

Lisa White, the health district’s public health nurse, said, “We’re encouraging anyone who finds a tick to have it tested,” even if it isn’t attached to them or their child.

Anyone who wants the tick tested should carefully remove it using tweezers and place it in a sealable plastic bag. On the LMZ’s website, www.TickReport.com, they can complete an online submittal form, write the order number provided on the plastic bag, and send it in an envelope with the tick to the address indicated on the website. Residents of nonparticipating towns can have a tick tested for a $40 fee at the same website.

“It tells us who is getting bitten by ticks, when and where and what the ticks may be transmitting,” said Stephen Rich director of the UMass Laboratory of Medical Zoology.

Distribution of these pathogens in ticks is poorly understood and likely varies substantially across the state, Rich said. He expects a larger data base the tests will provide will give scientists a clearer picture.

“We have information about what ticks are out in the woods and information about who is getting sick, but we haven’t had the information linking the ticks with the people, believe it or not.”

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Surveillance statistics show that in Massachusetts, confirmed cases of Lyme disease have increased from 23.9 cases per 100,000/population in 2004 to 60.9/100,000 in 2008 and the disease is now considered endemic in all of Massachusetts, according to a statement provided by UMass.

Results, both for the tick’s “owner” and the public database, are available in about a week, Rich said.

UMass scientists have long been searching for a way to take the financial burden for testing off individuals, Rich said. “The grant is going to let us do that for a year and then we’ll have to figure out another way,” he said.

Contributing to this report was Debra Scherban at The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

On the Web: www.TickReport

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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