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UMass lab steps up tick testing as season hits high gear

As tick season kicks into high gear, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are stepping up their efforts to test ticks that people find on themselves or their pets for diseases that could possibly be passed on.

The Laboratory of Medical Zoology in Amherst is partnering with about two dozen towns in the state to offer discounted testing that lab director Steve Rich said can help treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

On a grander scale, the thousands of ticks sent to the lab from all over the country every year are helping to determine where ticks are found, what diseases they carry, and how they spread.


There are about 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease per year in the US, the most common tick-borne disease in humans, but that’s probably about one-tenth of the actual cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme is one of about a dozen diseases ticks can pass on to humans and pets.

‘‘This is a serious public health issue,’’ Rich, a UMass microbiology professor, said.

There are other labs that perform a similar service, but not for the $50 that the UMass lab charges and not as fast, Rich said. His laboratory guarantees a five-day turnaround, and can often have the test results within 24 hours. Some labs take weeks.

His tests are not a diagnosis, but getting the results fast can help doctors and veterinarians plan a course of treatment.

The lab’s work is invaluable, said Larry Dapsis, an entomologist for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension who has worked with the lab for about five years. Cape Cod has a particularly acute tick problem.

‘‘What we have found is that people are being exposed to more diseases than we thought,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not just about Lyme anymore.’’ Other tick-borne diseases, including anaplasmosis and babesiosis, are also on the rise according to the CDC.


Cape residents can pay just $15 for a tick test, with grant money making up the difference. Towns elsewhere are offering half-price tests.

The information is shared with doctors, town health departments and even civic organizations, and used to educate people on how to avoid tick bites in the first place.

‘‘The lab’s data gives people a lot of peace of mind,’’ Dapsis said.