CELS researcher’s TickSpotters program provides timely risk assessment

Dr. John Torres, NBC Nightly News medical correspondent, at left, interviews URI Professor Tom Mather, nationally renowned tick expert for a story Thursday, May 10 on NBC Nightly News. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Oh No! You’ve been bitten by a tick or find one on your clothes or pet. Your anxiety quickly builds as you wonder, “Is this a deer tick? Will I get Lyme disease?”

With University of Rhode Island Professor of Entomology Tom Mather warning that a tough tick season is looming this spring and summer, he also wants you to know that help is as close as the Internet or cellular data by using his TickSpotters program.

With your smartphone or camera, simply take a photo of a tick that you find on your skin or clothes and send it to TickSpotters.

Mather, a nationally renowned tick expert, director of the URI Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its popular TickEncounter Resource Center, works with doctoral graduate student Heather Kopsco and other team members to examine photos and provide an identification confirmation, a personalized risk assessment and case-appropriate prevention educational information at no charge to help people determine what their next steps could be.

The deer tick is particularly troublesome because besides Lyme disease it can transmit four other different types of germs, and during its nymph stage, it is the size of a poppy seed and difficult to spot. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, typical symptoms caused by an infected deer tick include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system.Mather discussed TickSpotters, the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks across the country and steps people can take to prevent tick bites with NBC Nightly News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres. The segment aired May 17.

Since launching TickSpotters in 2014, Mather and his team have responded to more than 46,000 submissions, examined more than 35,000 pictures and provided information to those wondering if they are in danger of coming down with Lyme disease or other dangerous tick-borne diseases.

He and Kopsco view each submitted photo to determine whether the tick encountered is a deer tick, also known as a blacklegged tick, or one of the other six or seven most common human or pet-biting ticks found across North America.

“We respond by email with a detailed message confirming the type of tick, the tick’s stage of development, how long it was attached, the chance for some disease and best next actions to help prevent possible disease. For example, if your tick was an American dog tick, there is pretty much no chance for that tick to pass on an infectious dose of the Lyme disease germ, and in the Northeast, little chance for other diseases either. It’s not a diagnosis but it is an informed risk assessment.”

Last May, TickSpotters helped 3,400 people who submitted photos. One night this week, the team received 164 photo submissions, and so far this month, there have already been more than 1,000 submissions. “Not too surprising, since May is the “tickiest” month of the year across North America,” Mather said…[Read more]