Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven testing record number of ticks
NEW HAVEN >> Inside a laboratory on Huntington Street, research assistant and Southern Connecticut State University senior Mallery Breban placed a clear sandwich bag under a microscope.
The bag was flat and empty except for a single dark speck. The speck was once alive but now it’s a dead tick, which Breban aligned with a light shining down from the microscope. After observing the tick to determine its species, she took metal tweezers and pierced the bag to remove the tiny bug. She then took the tick and placed it inside a plastic tube with a BB gun pellet. The pellets are added to help crush the tick after its placed on a machine.
Once it’s crushed, the tick can be tested for pathogens.
“A lot of people underestimate how dangerous ticks can be,” Breban said. The tiny bugs can carry Lyme disease and Powassan virus, which can be fatal but is rare in Connecticut.
Breban is one of three assistants to Goudarz Molaei, a research scientist and associate clinical professor at Yale University’s School of Public Health who leads the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s tick-testing program. On Friday, Molaei, Breban and research assistant Kristina D’Agostino were busy with the latest batch of ticks submitted for testing by the public.
It’s been an especially busy year. Molaei knew this year would be different before it even started.
Around December, Molaei realized 2017 was going to be a good year for ticks — and a bad year for people. During December, January and February, the lab got more than 800 ticks, up from the usual 50 or so they would get around the same time.
“That’s quiet unheard of,” Molaei said. “At that time, I raised the (concern) because an unusually warm winter, not just in 2016 but also in 2015, that we are going to have a surge in tick population.”
The prediction came true. Climate plays a key role in helping ticks thrive: A lack of winter snowfall during the past two years in the state meant a lack of harsh conditions for ticks, Molaei said. Low-temperature conditions lead to fewer ticks. But a warmer winter expands the tick’s window for reproduction and activity, allowing them to thrive.
Another reason for their surge is related to the state’s deer population — another source of sustenance for ticks. The three major tick species in Connecticut are blacklegged tick, American dog tick and lone star tick.
“Even though there are debate about deer, whether deer population is high or low in recent years, but overall, deer population has increased,” Molaei said. “Deer provide ample food.”
Ticks turn infectious after they latch on to another favorite host: rodents. This is where they pick up pathogens they can then transfer to humans.
Their surging numbers are reflective of a larger trend throughout New England. In Connecticut, Molaei said his office usually receives about 3,000 tickets annually. The office has already receive 3,700 so far this year, with at least one season left that Molaei is sure will push final 2017 figures into 6,000 ticks submitted. June and July mark the first peak season for ticks, while October and November are the second.
Molaei said office was getting as many as 200 to 250 ticks per day during the past three months.
“In March, April and May, we were just inundated by a number of ticks that came our way and up to a point that we were almost unable to process these ticks on a daily basis,” Molaei said.
Molaei’s office tests ticks from around the state and is responsible for keeping track of the kind of pathogens the ticks often carry. It’s a process that begins with residents, municipal health agencies, hospitals or private doctors sending in ticks by mail.
They’re often bugs that have been removed after making human contact. Some are even engorged, filled with blood and expanded like tiny balloons. Others are so small they appear like black dots inside the sandwich bags where they’re often placed by senders.
“These are ticks that have attempted to bite humans,” Molaei said. “These are human host seeking or human parasitizing ticks.”
The office will also accept walk-in submissions. It’s how Dennis Jakiela, of Hamden, decided to submit three ticks for testing Friday. Jakiela said he found the ticks after going on a hike. Last year, he said he only submitted a single tick.
“It’s unusual for me to get three within the space of one month. That’s unusual for me personally,” Jakiela said.
Ticks can spread disease such as Lyme disease, which Molaei said isn’t usually fatal but can cause long-term neurological damage in about 50 percent of cases. There are about 3,000 reported cases in the state every year, Molaei said.
However, Molaei said its more likely the real number is closer to 30,000 cases. This estimate is based on a federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention figure. The federal agency believes there are 10 times as many people with Lyme disease than are diagnosed.
“It is not necessarily the case that more ticks means more infected ticks,” Molaei said. “However, this year are finding out that more ticks are infected. It’s not just the numbers is high, the prevalence of infection or the infection rate of Lyme disease and other tick-associated disease are high.”
During one month, Molaei said the infection rate among ticks tested grew to about 38 percent, above the average of 27 to 34 percent rate for Lyme disease along among deer ticks. Some ticks can even carry two diseases.
Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901.