Don’t Flush That Tick! UConn Magazine

Why You Should

Flush A

By Elaina Hancock ’09 MS
Photos by Peter Morenus

Why You Should


Flush A

By Elaina Hancock ’09 MS
Photos by Peter Morenus

No, it won’t grow to gator size and come back to bite you. But taking it to this UConn testing facility could reap some pretty significant rewards.

Another summer in New England, another boom in the tick population. It seems impossible to miss media accounts of how large the population was last year and how much worse it could be this year.

And you would be hard pressed to find someone — or someone who knows someone — who hasn’t been impacted by a tick-borne disease. It’s even harder to avoid the terrifying headlines about the latest devastating disease and how rampant it is likely to be. Every mention is accompanied by that feeling that something is crawling on your arm, your neck. One could become inured to it.

But it is important not to let the yearly wave of tick stories simply wash over us, warns associate professor of pathobiology Paulo Verardi. “People have become used to ticks as just something we have to deal with. But this is a big deal.”

Typically after an attached tick is found, a patient is advised to monitor for flu-like symptoms or a rash for about a week, an understandable tactic considering how common tick bites are.
However, consider a tick is like an eight-legged syringe potentially loaded with multiple pathogens that may or may not be passed to its host while attached. Ticks literally “dig in” while feeding. After cutting the host’s skin, a tick will sink its mouthparts into the wound and insert a feeding tube. Some ticks even secrete a cementlike mixture to help them attach even more efficiently. Some diseases are passed quickly; others may take a day or two.

Now consider that some of the diseases that could result from this encounter may have immediate symptoms and others may have symptoms that don’t show up for days, weeks, even months. And even with symptoms, some tick-borne diseases are difficult to test for in a patient — they can hide out and evade routine testing techniques.

Finally, consider that some of these infections can carry lasting effects, such as those seen in post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), ranging from fatigue and malaise to arthritis, carditis, and neurological symptoms.

“Would you rather wait or would you rather know?” asks lab technician Heather Haycock ’03 (CAHNR), who works at the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab (CVMDL) smack dab in the middle of the UConn campus.

CVMDL is a little-known resource offering powerful data and potential peace of mind for those who have picked ticks off of themselves or loved ones (two- or four-legged loved ones). The lab tests around 600 ticks each year — provided by clients who take the test results to health care providers.

Why have your ticks tested? “Knowledge is power,” says lab technician Maureen Sims ’06 (CAHNR). The knowledge will get you targeted, appropriate treatment. Or conversely, it will give you peace of mind that the tick you found didn’t harbor any nasty pathogens.

“Would you rather wait or would you rather know?”

If you put a tick in a blender.

A recent visit to CVMDL finds Sims leaning over a dissecting microscope, bright lights and lens trained on a specimen that resembles a parched gray watermelon seed. The tick was recently submitted and is ready for identification and testing.

“This one is a female deer tick, and Oh!, she’s moving!” Sim’s head pops up from the scope and she points out eight legs slowly beginning to stir as the lights from the scope warm and wake the tick up. Stay tuned: There’s a far ruder awakening in this tick’s near future.

Sims is in charge of the initial steps of tick testing at CVMDL, where she determines the species, the sex, where it is in its life cycle, and the degree of engorgement, which gives an idea of how long the tick was feeding on its host. All of these bits of information help determine how successful the tick may have been in transmitting a litany of diseases to its host.

After the ID, Sims places the tick in a test tube and hands the specimen off to Haycock, who carries on with the processing, first with the ruder awakening — the gruesome job of squishing the tick. She adds a little liquid, then smashes the tick into a brownish-red sludge using a small wooden stick. “This one was pulled off a dog. When they have been pulled off of people, it’s worse somehow,” opines Haycock.

This sludge is where the genetic information for any pathogens the tick was carrying will be. After extracting the DNA, Haycock runs tests for two species of Borrelia and another common tick-borne pathogen in the Northeast, Anaplasma. Ticks may have feasted on multiple hosts since many ticks, such as the deer tick, require more than one blood meal to complete a life cycle, with each host offering another opportunity to transmit pathogens to the hungry tick.

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Consider a tick is like an eight-legged syringe potentially loaded with multiple pathogens that may or may not be passed to its host while attached.

the “new” deadly disease

As a component of the pathobiology and veterinary science department at UConn, CVMDL also serves as the Connecticut State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Work with the diagnostic labs and research labs may overlap, expertise is shared, and collaborations are frequent. Within the department, focus tends to be on studying animal diseases. But many of these diseases are shared with the human population, says Guillermo Risatti, associate professor of pathobiology and head of Diagnostic Testing Services at CVMDL. Powassan virus, the newest tick-borne infection to make headlines in Connecticut, is one of those diseases.

Powassan itself is not new. It was first described in the 1950s in a fatal case of encephalitis in a young boy and is in the same family as West Nile and the Zika virus, says Risatti. But humans were seen as more of an incidental host for Powassan, which mostly appeared in woodchucks and was carried by a tick not typically interested in people. Then the virus started to show up in the deer tick population, the same ticks often pulled off people.

Though only one case of Powassan has been reported in Connecticut, there were 21 cases in the U.S. in 2016, and the virus is a serious one. It packs a deadly punch, with a reported 10 percent of cases ending fatally. Powassan is also quick, with transmission in as little as 15 minutes after the tick digs in, unlike the often-touted 24 to 48 hours required for Lyme disease. The third punch Powassan packs is that it has no cure, only supportive treatments can be administered with hopes the patient will pull through.

“This is a public health crisis in the making,” says Verardi, who in addition to teaching pathobiology works as a virologist and vaccine developer. He naturally started thinking about a vaccine when news of Powassan in Connecticut broke. Since most of the tick-borne diseases in our area are bacterial and are relatively easily treated, the issue of vaccines for tick-borne diseases had been on his back burner. “With Powassan virus happening right here,” he says, “it becomes a big deal.”

Now plans are under way to start working on vaccines for both Powassan and Lyme. But vaccine development is a long, expensive process, often involving a lot of trial and error. In the meantime, Verardi and his colleagues here and elsewhere in the Northeast are exploring vaccines for animal hosts. Small rodents, for example, could receive a vaccine that would either block transmission of the pathogens to the tick once it feeds or perhaps kill the tick altogether.

Since Powassan is not a new virus, why are we hearing about it now? It seems like there is a new tick-borne disease popping up every few years. The truth is that you can’t test for what you don’t know about, and as tick expert and CAHNR associate dean of academic programs Sandra Bushmich puts it, “There are diseases that we do know about that people aren’t testing for routinely. Powassan causes encephalitis, and you don’t always know the cause of encephalitis, therefore it is probably an underreported illness.” It likely has been present in Connecticut much longer than documented, lurking in the animal population and only recently making headlines in the human population.

Just one bite: ticks and allergies on the north shore

A life-threatening meat allergy has emerged on the northern beaches.

By Louise Williams

About an hour after Joy Cowdery tasted the beef casserole she had cooked, a mass of red rashes spread across her body, her tongue swelled and her blood pressure plummeted as she slid dangerously into anaphylactic shock.

That was eight years ago, and Cowdery’s inexplicable meat allergy is now attributed to a tick bite she suffered at her family’s weekender at Pittwater, on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Once bitten: Joy and Nick Cowdery at their holiday house on the northern beaches. Credit: Fiona Morris

The part-time teacher, hasn’t eaten meat since.

Allergies are not contagious but somehow Cowdery’s allergy had been transmitted into her system or »induced» by the tick bite.

Blood sucker: An adult paralysis tick. Credit: Virginia Bear

»What people generally do not realise is that a mammalian meat allergy can be a very serious life-threatening allergy,» Cowdery says.

Her husband, former NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, has been bitten hundreds of times but hasn’t been affected.

Cowdery became »case No. 23» for Associate Professor Sheryl van Nunen, a clinical immunology specialist at Royal North Shore Hospital. Van Nunen has more than 450 patients on her books and is seeing about two new cases a week of tick-induced allergies to red meat. It is beef, pork, lamb, not chicken or fish that is the culprit.

What these patients have in common is a history of tick bites, particularly in the leafy and bush-bound suburbs of Sydney’s northern beaches and north shore. However, more new cases of mammalian meat allergy are being reported all over Australia within the eastern coastal range of ticks that extends up to 20-30 kilometres inland from the sea. The Gold Coast hinterland is a hotspot, but recently Melbourne had its first case diagnosed.

And while van Nunen was the first immunologist in the world to describe the link between ticks and this otherwise virtually unknown allergy in 2007, US research has since further explained how the allergy is passed on.

A recent paper published by Springer Science noted that by 2012 it was clear there are also thousands of people affected by tick-induced meat allergies in the US and Europe.

An Australian study by a group of emergency medicine specialists published in the journal of Emergency Medicine Australia earlier this year, reported more than 500 cases of tick reactions at the emergency department over two years at Mona Vale Hospital on Sydney’s northern beaches.

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The induced mammalian meat allergy is unusual in that the onset of the allergic reaction, which ranges from mild gastric symptoms to life-threatening anaphylaxis, can occur up to three to six hours after eating meat and often many months after the tick bite. Other better known tick allergies show immediate anaphylaxis, large local rashes and swelling around the bite, paralysis in young children (as well as pets) and various infections, including so-called »tick typhus», a flu-type condition transmitted in much the same way as a mosquito transmits malaria.

In the tick season, up to two per cent of the caseload coming into emergency at Mona Vale hospital, several cases a day, are tick-related, says Dr Andy Ratchford, the hospital’s director of emergency medicine, and co-author of the Australian study.

»People know about bees and peanuts, but by far the most common allergic reactions we see are to ticks and they can be just as life threatening,» he says.

A critical issue, he says, is not to squeeze a tick but to kill or paralyse it with a freeze spray before removal to prevent it injecting its saliva.

Rachel Nazha, of Ryde, was relieved to get a diagnosis for her son, Adam, who had debilitating, chronic stomach problems for years every time he ate meat.

They started when he was eight after a school camp in the Royal National Park where several students were bitten by ticks.

»He would be hunched over and couldn’t walk. We didn’t know what it was so we just started eliminating things, starting with chocolate, and it we worked out that it seemed to be meat but we’d never heard of a meat allergy.»

Eventually, they were referred to Royal North Shore Hospital where the allergy was confirmed. The only treatment is avoidance and managing the diet to ensure the adequate intake of nutrients such as iron, and carrying a precautionary EpiPen.

Despite their best efforts, Adam, now 13 and a keen competition skier, became violently ill after toasting marshmallows around the fire with friends after a day on the mountains. They now know marshmallows contain beef gelatine.

Janelle Williams, from the northern bush suburb of Oxford Falls, struggled for four years with what she thought could be chronic fatigue and what some doctors even suggested »was in her head».

»It has totally changed our lives … we need to be very careful with food and I show my allergy card everywhere I buy food outside the home,» she says. Her daughter, too, has the allergy, making play dates and outings complicated.

Van Nunen says the scientific community now understands how an allergy to meat can be induced by a tick.

All mammals, except human and higher apes, have a carbohydrate called »alpha-gal» in their systems. When a tick feeds on the blood of a mammal such as a bandicoot, possum, cat or dog, it introduces alpha-gal into the tick’s alimentary tract which the tick transfers to the next host when it attaches. The immune system of an allergic human who is bitten recognises alpha-gal as foreign so produces allergens to fight it off, inducing delayed allergic reactions to mammalian meat.

Alpha-gal in a human can now be recognised through a blood test. But people allergic to tick bites and who have an immediate reaction are reacting to proteins in the tick’s saliva.

There is no hard scientific evidence, however, to explain why tick allergies are reaching epidemic proportions. But, the increasing numbers correspond to two trends. First, fox baiting and bush regeneration across many areas of northern Sydney has allowed bandicoot numbers to recover and they often roam close to homes. Second, warmer conditions have coincided with more ticks.

Ian Dunlop, the high-profile international oil, gas and coal industry executive turned climate change campaigner, discovered he had a serious anaphylactic allergy to ticks last year after being bitten while gardening at his Gordon home in Sydney’s north.

»The biggest problem is you feel your throat starting to become constricted — the moral of the story is people really need to take this seriously,» Dunlop says.

Van Nunen, one of the founders of the Tick-induced Allergies Research and Awareness (TIARA) fund at Royal North Shore Hospital, says getting information out about how to deal with ticks and how to recognise allergic reactions is critical.

Eight years on, Cowdery is still confronted with incredulous reactions from people who say »you really can’t eat meat?».

»It has changed summer barbecues, but now about four or five of our neighbours have the same meat allergy.

»I just wrap up some fish and bring it with me, so it doesn’t touch the meat on the hotplate.»

The bugs of summer and how to deal with them

Darin Bjerknes

The bugs of summer and how to deal with them

Right about now, many of us are feeling as if summer is one big bug fest. If you’ve spent any time at all outdoors, you know what we’re talking about.

From grilling to hiking to even walking the dog, summer bugs are everywhere. Yes, they’re pesky, but even more important is that they put us at risk for bug-borne diseases.

Fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are the biggest culprits. Known as “vectors,” these insects spread the pathogens that cause West Nile Virus, Lyme disease and other “vector-borne” diseases.

“Disease cases from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled in the U.S. between 2004 and 2016,”

So, how can we avoid these pests while enjoying summertime in the great outdoors? Read on.

Protect yourself

When hiking, it’s easy to be distracted by a view or wildlife and common to want to blaze your own trail to get a better look.

It’s not wise, however. Experts recommend that you remain in the middle of trails when hiking or jogging. Ticks are especially notorious for hiding in tall grass and other vegetation.

Don’t use perfume, cologne or lotions and soaps with fragrance before heading out to enjoy the outdoors (these scents may attract mosquitoes). Wear the appropriate, protective clothing This includes:

  • Shirt with long sleeves
  • Long pants
  • Socks (that can be tucked under the pants to protect the skin from ticks)
  • Boots
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Consider spraying your outdoor wear with a permethrin-based insect repellent. The CDC does not recommend that you use repellent on babies younger than 2 months old.

Before entering your home after a day outdoors, check all family members and pets for ticks. If you find one, remove it right away. Learn how to safely remove a tick and aftercare instructions at

Right in your own backyard

Deer are the favorite host of the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), carrier of the dreaded Lyme disease.

“More than 14,000 cases [of Lyme disease] are reported annually,”

according to the experts at National Geographic. “Adult deer ticks, they continue, “are about the size of a sesame seed.”

If deer are common visitors to your neighborhood, discourage them from coming into your yard. You can do this by removing vegetation that is attractive to deer. Some of the plants that are popular among deer include:

  • Honey locust
  • Plum, apple, pear, persimmon and crabapple trees
  • White and red oak
  • Hickory and pecan trees
  • Eastern red cedar
  • Raspberries or blackberries

Plant fragrant plants (deer avoid anything highly fragrant) such as lavender, sage and salvia. “Daffodils, foxgloves, and poppies are common flowers that have a toxicity that deer avoid,” according to Catherine Boeckmann at

Ticks may also take up residence in the lawn, so keep it debris-free by raking up dead leaves and mowing the lawn to keep it as short as possible.

If you’re still finding ticks and mosquitos in your yard after taking the previous steps, consider spraying it with a tick and mosquito control product.

Following these tips can help keep mosquitoes, ticks and other insects away for a bug-free summer.

The Year of the Tick

Why This Year’s Tick Season Might Be the Worst in Years and How to Protect Yourself

A tick(ing) time bomb is set to explode this season, in fields, forests and yards across the country, as we head into what is expected to be an extremely heavy tick season. And with ticks, come the dangers of tick-borne disease, namely Lyme disease.

Health and insect experts are calling it a perfect storm of conditions coming together to create a tick population explosion — lack of acorns and the mild winter. Specifically, the mild winter has allowed ticks, much like other insects to thrive and emerge earlier than usual. As for the acorns, oak trees produced an extremely large acorn crop in 2010, which led to a boom in the white-footed mouse population last year.

As a result, the blacklegged (deer) tick population also increased because ticks had an abundance of mice to feed on when they hatched. However, this spring those same ticks will be looking for their next blood meal and since mice will be in short-supply, the ticks will turn to the next best thing — humans!

Where The Ticks Are

Most residents of the Northeast United States are familiar with ticks and the risks they pose, but a new study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene has pinpointed the states where people have the highest risk of contracting Lyme disease.

In addition to the states from Maine to Virginia, the researchers also identified states in the upper Midwest such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and a small part of Illinois as high-risk regions. Additionally, there are several «emerging risk» regions including the Illinois-Indiana border, the New York-Vermont border, southwestern Michigan and eastern North Dakota. Recent news reports are showing a migration of blacklegged ticks into Ohio as well.

Lyme Disease Cases

In 2010, the latest data available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counted more than 22,000 cases of reported Lyme disease. Of those, 94 percent were reported from 12 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. According to the CDC, Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S.

Tick Prevention for You (and Your Pets)

Ticks are small and can be easy to miss, especially if they’ve latched themselves onto a hairy pet or a spot on a human that’s hard to reach or see, such as the top of the head or back.

Ticks are more prevalent in tall grass and wooded areas inhabited by large animals, such as deer. If hiking through the woods, remember to walk in the center of trails to avoid ticks. While most people may be aware of deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease and are found in the Northeast region of the country, it’s important to remember that different species of ticks are found across the U.S. and that they carry a variety of other diseases.

Before heading out, dress in long sleeves and pants and consider tucking pant legs into socks, especially if you will be walking in tall grass or wooded areas. Also, use a tick repellant containing DEET, following the manufacturer’s instructions. For prolonged outdoor activities such as camping, look for clothing and camping gear that is treated with permethrin.

Upon returning home from a walk through the woods, time in the garden or camping, it’s important to perform a thorough tick check — from head to toe. If you find a tick on your body, remove it with a slow, steady pull so as not to break off the mouthparts and leave them in the skin. Then wash hands and bite site thoroughly with soap and water. Flush ticks down the toilet or wrap them tightly in tissue before disposing in a closed receptacle. If you suspect a tick bite, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Can Pests Transmit Coronavirus?

Now that winter has passed, it’s important to note that coronavirus is not spread by vector pests.

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