Maine tick identification program being phased out

Posted Dec. 23, 2013, at 6:44 p.m.
The woodchuck tick, formally known as Ixodes cookei
Maine Medical Center Research Institute
The woodchuck tick, formally known as Ixodes cookei
The deer tick, formally known as Ixodes scapularis
Maine Medical Center Research Institute
The deer tick, formally known as Ixodes scapularis

A program that has identified ticks for Maine residents for 25 years is expected to wind down by the end of the year.

The Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s tick submission program, established in 1988 in partnership with the Maine Forest Service, has run out of funding, according to Charles Lubelczyk, a field biologist at the institute. The staff hopes to see the program transferred to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, though its future remains uncertain, he said.

Since the program’s founding, the institute’s researchers have examined an estimated 30,000 ticks, distinguishing dog ticks from deer ticks and woodchuck ticks, helping Mainers to assess their risk of diseases based on the species. A few other critters have popped up along the way, too, Lubelczyk said.

“We get everything from deer ticks to seeds to beetles to bedbugs,” he said.

Maine Medical Center has funded the program on a shoestring budget, but recently pulled the plug after several years of losses amounting to $12,000 to $15,000 annually, Lubelczyk said. A robust tick submission program needs about $16,000 to $20,000 a year to operate, he said.

The institute pursued grant funding, but many agencies were reluctant to fund the work, a trend that has struck tick submission programs in other states, Lubelczyk said. Some programs have responded by charging customers, though MMC’s program identifies ticks for free.

The program does not test ticks for disease.

The institute will continue to advise Mainers on what to do in case of a tick bite and maintain its surveillance work on tick-borne diseases, including the re-emerged Powassan virus, Lubelczyk said.

“With Powassan for instance, we’ll probably try to work on getting surveillance programs up and running, to actually look for it, to go out and find it,” he said.

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