Our Opinion: UMass tick program is well worth investment

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No matter how much protective clothing you wear, no matter how thoroughly you douse yourself with repellent spray, you may at some point find a dreaded tick dining on your precious bodily fluid. On that day, you will immediately wonder if you are on the winning or losing side of the pathogen lottery — whether your tick is one of the estimated 50 percent carrying bacteria or viruses that can affect the rest of your life if left untreated, or whether you were lucky enough to skate free.

You can find out by sending the offending insect in to be analyzed, but the cost for DNA and RNA testing to determine whether the bug is infected — and with what — typically costs $100. That can be a big incentive for someone to shrug, decide to accept the risk of not knowing the truth, and move on. There are two downsides to this approach: first, a condition like Lyme disease's effects can be severely reduced or eliminated if treated with antibiotics early enough in the infection stage, and second, no data will be provided to those whose business it is to track insect-borne illnesses in hopes of countering their prevalence.

Thanks to Stephen Rich, professor of microbiology and director of the medical zoology laboratory at UMass-Amherst, his brainchild — a nonprofit streamlined process he developed in 2006 called "TickReport" for sending in ticks for analysis, has been given a shot in the arm by the Centers for Disease Control in the form of a $100,000 grant designed to lower the cost of testing to $15 for Massachusetts consumers (Eagle, May 21). This will not only help individuals determine and act upon their course of treatment, but it will also provide analysts with important data that may someday aid in eradication of such illnesses.

The tick-bite victim navigates to the website of tickreport.com, enters information, makes a payment by credit card, sends the tick to the lab, and within three business days of the tick's arrival receives an emailed report on the various diseases it's carrying, if any. Most important, the lab now has a new data point to add to its list. The statewide subsidy, administered for the CDC by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, is designed to improve data gathering, particularly from areas like the Berkshires that are lax about sending in ticks for analysis.

Given the value of this program,, a way should be found to secure funding past the CDC's grant — which is estimated to be depleted by mid-July, the heart of tick season. Already, according to Professor Rich, over 400 ticks have been sent in during the first week of the subsidy's existence, and the funding will only cover 2,500 tests of various levels of sophistication before its depletion.

Regional tick infestations have developed a kind of quiet terror all their own, particularly in light of the fact that according to the CDC, 95 percent of Lyme cases came from 14 states, including all six in New England. On an individual scale, many residents are fearful of entering grassy or wooded areas at all. Even more worrisome is the mass potential effect of such fears on industries like tourism, which comprises a significant part of the Berkshires' economic lifeblood. Due to the Berkshires' rural nature, it is high on the list of affected areas, and if there is a way to bring it more into line with other regions in terms of accurate reporting of intensity and types of pathogens, than it should be encouraged.

The cost, clearly, is not prohibitive — another $100,000 appropriated by Beacon Hill could keep prices down throughout the rest of the 2018 tick season, and it is hard to imagine where such a relatively minor sum could achieve more bang for the buck. We urge the Berkshires delegation to team up with other legislators to find a way to appropriate the funds needed to help this worthy program thrive.


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