URI to develop tick encounter risk calculator

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URI entomologist, computer scientists team up to develop ‘tick encounter risk calculator’

to help residents assess risk for disease

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 22, 2010 – Residents of Southern New England will soon have a new tool at their disposal to help them determine their likelihood of encountering disease-carrying deer ticks and identify the best strategies for reducing their risk of being bitten.

University of Rhode Island entomologist Thomas Mather, director of the URI Center for Vector Borne Disease, has been awarded a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete development of a tick encounter risk calculator for New England and a deer tick control training curriculum for professional pest control experts.

According to Mather, the new calculator tool is a user-friendly way of collecting data about the tick habitat in residents’ yards, the wildlife and pets they may encounter, and any current tick control steps that residents are taking to protect themselves from ticks. In less than five minutes, a homeowner or pest control expert will be able to calculate their level of risk and receive a customized tick-bite protection action plan specific for their own situation and likely level of risk. URI Computer Sciences Professor Jean-Yves Hervé and Technical Programmer Brian Mullen are the other principals developing the tick risk calculator.

“The calculator and customized action plan is a decision support tool that enables users to see how different strategies they could take will reduce risk levels,” Mather explained. “Just like high cholesterol or blood pressure numbers, the tick encounter risk calculator will help people make decisions about what they should do and what options are appropriate to reduce their risk of encountering ticks.”

The tick encounter risk calculator is expected to be complete this spring and available for use on the team’s website, www.tickencounter.org, just in time for this year’s peak tick season. The URI professors hope to have an iPhone application of the calculator available later this year.

The EPA grant will also fund a series of training programs for landscapers and pest controllers who can become certified deer tick control professionals after completing the three-hour training class and submitting a tick control plan.

“The goal of the training is to have a larger number of expertly-trained professionals ready to respond to the needs of residents who use the risk calculator and want to take the next steps to protect themselves,” Mather said. “But we also want to make sure that those doing the work are following an efficient and effective tick control methodology and aren’t just spraying pesticides everywhere unnecessarily.”

Mather conducted a first phase of the training in Massachusetts in January, and is planning the more comprehensive class for professionals in Rhode Island in late April. He expects that the first certified deer tick controllers will be on the job this spring.