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New Research Efforts Target Tick-borne Illnesses

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With spring comes warmer weather and beautiful flowers, but also the risk of tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease. One U Mass Amherst professor wants to understand how and why tick-born diseases are on the rise, and his lab now tests ticks as both a research tool and a public service.

Lyme borreliosis (or Lyme disease) is the most commonly reported vector-borne disease in North America. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, the disease was relatively unknown prior to the 1980′s. Its rise has been largely enabled by burgeoning deer populations, which carry the deer ticks that, in turn, carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

Dr. Stephen Rich, a professor of microbiology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says routine surveillance is critical to understanding changes in tick populations and the diseases they carry. But state and local officials don’t monitor ticks the way they do mosquitos.

Researchers, including Rich, are turning to crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding efforts to get the information the public craves and researchers need. University of Rhode Island’s TickSpotters program collects user-submitted photographs of ticks, along with information about when and where it was encountered. University of Massachusetts Amherst’s TickReport service goes a step further, accepting ticks to be tested for Lyme and a suite of other bacteria and parasites.

Those tests results serve dual purposes. They’re provided to the consumer, who may want to share the report with their physician. But Rich wants people to know they’re also contributing to research that benefits the greater good – even if their own test results are negative.

Both universities also provide online educational resources for the public:

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