On a sunny, cool day as fall gave way to winter, a team of biologists and technicians dragged white cloths through the underbrush at Lord Creek Farm in Lyme. They were looking for blacklegged ticks, which carry Lyme disease and four other deadly illnesses. As ticks attached to the cloth, the team counted them and put them in jars for further study at their lab at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. Japanese barberry bushes grew thickly beneath the trees at this private horse farm that for years has cooperated with Lyme disease researchers. As the group dragged cloths, they noticed ticks on each other’s pant legs and coats, and began to pick them off.
For nearly nine years, scientists inside the boxy brick Western Connecticut Health Network Research Center have been working to develop a more accurate test to diagnose the scourge of the Connecticut woods: Lyme disease. Lyme disease is carried by the tiny blacklegged tick, commonly known as a deer tick. When a blacklegged tick infected with Lyme bites a human, it can transmit a tiny microscopic organism, called a spirochete, that moves around the human body, evading easy detection. Researchers in Danbury have been trying to detect that spirochete, similar to those that cause syphilis and other diseases, in people’s blood. Pathology research scientist Donna Guralski powered up her microscope and computer recently to show the culprit: a fluorescent green corkscrew-shaped organism that twisted around the screen, just as it would burrow through a person’s blood vessel walls and into tissue.
This year 97 percent of blacklegged ticks, commonly known as deer ticks, survived the Connecticut winter and are hungry for blood as temperatures warm. These arachnids transmit bacteria that cause Lyme disease and are likely thriving in your backyard, according to Connecticut Chief Entomologist Kirby Stafford. About 3,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported in the state each year, the state Department of Public Health reports, but Stafford says that most cases aren’t reported. The true number is closer to 35,000, he estimates. “Under-reporting is more likely to occur in highly endemic [widespread] areas, whereas over-reporting is more likely to occur in non-endemic areas,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.