NPR

To Fight Tick-Borne Disease, Someone Has To Catch Ticks

Last year, Tom Mather caught 15,000 deer ticks in the woods of southern Rhode Island. "People really need to become tick literate," the University of Rhode Island researcher says. (Brian Mullen for NPR)

Most people try to avoid ticks. But not Tom Mather.

The University of Rhode Island researcher goes out of his way to find them.

He looks for deer ticks — poppy seed-sized skin burrowers — in the woods of southern Rhode Island. These are the teeny-tiny carriers of Lyme disease, an illness that can lead to symptoms ranging from nasty rashes to memory loss.

For more information about ticks, check out the Tick Encounter Resource Center from the University of Rhode Island's Center for Vector-Borne Disease.

Mather's not having much trouble finding deer ticks. In fact, he just might be the best deer tick collector in the country. He caught 15,000 of them last year.

His success is a sign of a growing problem. Adult-sized deer ticks are thriving throughout much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest.

Mather has a trim gray beard and a runner's build. He moves through the undergrowth with precision. He goes from one plant to another, sometimes plucking off ticks five at a time.

"You know. I can hold eight to 10 in my fingers and do it that way," Mather says. "If there is more than that, usually I will sort of touch the branch to my thigh and let the ticks crawl up on my leg, and then I have a couple seconds to pick them before they start walking away."

Mather doesn't have to go into the deep woods to find ticks. A lot of times, he's practically in people's wooded backyards.

"People would be incredulous if they only knew," he says.

But most people can't spot the ticks. They're tiny. Deer ticks tend to be a little smaller than dog ticks, and they're pretty good at blending in with their surroundings, too.

Mather has spent about 30 years studying deer ticks. When he started, he didn't know the organism would become the focus of his academic life — or something that sends him into tick-infested areas for work.

"This wouldn't be the job that most people would want — walking through the brush getting pricked and latched onto by ticks at the same time," Mather says, laughing. "I think it's great."

Just down the road from these woods is Mather's lab at the University of Rhode Island campus.

"When we bring the ticks back in from the field, we just keep them in the refrigerator," he says.

Probably half of the adult deer ticks he encountered in the woods carry some sort of pathogen like the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. And most of the ticks he collects this fall will be used for research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 24,000 people last year in the U.S. contracted Lyme disease.

"People really need to become tick literate," he says. "When not so many people got sick it seemed like less of an issue. When more people get sick ... you need to know more about the situation."

Mather had Lyme disease — once. He's fine now, but he knows plenty of people who didn't fare as well. That's one reason why he's gathering ticks to use for the development of effective vaccines to fight tick-borne diseases.

"I feel that research has to be done for a purpose," he says. "And the purpose is to protect people. In this case, protect people from being bitten and getting a disease, or several diseases."

And that's why Mather will venture back into the woods, whistling to himself as he collects thousands more ticks.

Copyright 2014 Rhode Island Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.ripr.org/.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Autumn brings cool, crisp weather and throughout much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, a threat. It is deer tick season. And the tiny insects can mean big problems for hikers, hunters or anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Deer ticks can transmit Lyme disease. That illness afflicts thousands of Americans every year, leading to everything from swollen joints to memory loss.

Still, despite the danger posed by these ticks, Rhode Island Public Radio's Bradley Campbell found a man who chooses to spend his days collecting them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BRADLEY CAMPBELL, BYLINE: If you want to find Dr. Tom Mather in the fall, just pull over to the side of the road near some woods in Southern Rhode Island. Mather's the guy in Carhartt overalls, whistling to himself as he plucks deer ticks off greenbrier with his fingers. Mather just might be the best deer tick collector in the United States. Last year, he caught 15,000.

DR. TOM MATHER: You know, I can hold eight or 10 in my fingers, you know, and do it that way. If there's more than that usually I will sort of touch the branch to my thigh and let the ticks crawl off on my leg and then I have a few seconds to quickly pick them before they start walking away.

CAMPBELL: Mather sports a trim gray beard. He has a runner's build and moves through the undergrowth with precision. He goes from one plant to another, sometimes plucking off ticks five at a time. And it's not like we're in the deep woods. There's a home just above us.

MATHER: People would be incredulous if they only knew.

CAMPBELL: What I can't seem to understand is I don't see anything. I'm not seeing anything and all of a sudden you're just plucking them off of the brush.

MATHER: Well, they're there.

CAMPBELL: And that's the danger. People can't spot them. It takes a trained eye. Deer ticks tend to be a little smaller than dog ticks, sometimes the size of poppy seed you'd find on a bagel. Mather's spent about 30 years studying ticks. When he started, he didn't know the organism would become the focus of his academic life or something that sends him into tick-infested areas for work.

MATHER: This wouldn't be the job most people would pick, though, walking through the briar patch getting pricked and latched on by ticks at the same time.

CAMPBELL: I couldn't think of anyone that would want this.

MATHER: I think this is great.

CAMPBELL: Just down the road from these woods is Mather's lab at the University of Rhode Island.

MATHER: When we bring the ticks back in from the field we just keep them in the refrigerator.

CAMPBELL: Probably half of the adult deer ticks we encountered in the woods carried a pathogen that could cause Lyme disease. And most of the ticks he collects this fall will be used for research. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 24,000 people last year in the U.S. contracted Lyme disease.

MATHER: People really need to become tick literate. When not so many people got sick, it seemed like less of an issue. When more people are getting sick, then you need to know more about the situation.

CAMPBELL: Mather's had Lyme disease once. He's fine now. But he knows plenty more who didn't do OK. That's why he's gathering ticks to use for the development of a broad spectrum vaccine to fight tick-borne diseases. Nothing like that currently exists for humans. It's his holy grail.

MATHER: I feel that research has to be done for a purpose. And the purpose is to protect people. In this case, protect people from being bitten and getting a disease or several diseases.

CAMPBELL: And that purpose is why Mather will venture back into the woods, whistling to himself as he collects thousands more ticks.

For NPR News, I'm Bradley Campbell in Providence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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