UMass gets $10M to tackle tick-borne diseases

  • FILE - In this March 24, 2017 photo, a tick is displayed in Plainville, Mass. (Paul Connors/The Sun Chronicle via AP) Paul Connors

Staff Writer
Published: 7/3/2022 8:06:22 PM
Modified: 7/3/2022 8:03:43 PM

AMHERST — UMass Amherst will receive $10 million over five years to create a federally designated Center of Excellence in the field of vector-borne diseases, such as those spread by ticks, mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers.

Funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will allow the center to launch this month, the university said, with a mission to limit disease spread, by conducting applied research, training a new generation of entomologists and serving as a knowledge hub for area health practitioners, academics and the general public.

The New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases, or NEWVEC, will include partners at Northern Vermont University, Western Connecticut State University, Dartmouth College and the universities of Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.

Established at five universities nationwide in 2017, Centers of Excellence (COE) have trained more than 5,300 vector control professionals and students, according to the CDC, published 341 scholarly articles and supported 70 regional projects to collect data on the effectiveness of mosquito and tick prevention.

The Northeast COE is run by universities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and says it has provided training to nearly 1,200 people. The Western Gulf COE in Texas is working to develop a Zika virus test that is three times as fast as the current test.

CDC grant records show UMass Amherst was awarded its first installment of just under $2 million on June 23. NEWVEC is also accepting private donations to fund its work.

“We’re really excited about building this community of practice and embracing all the stakeholders in the region who need to know how to do things like reduce ticks and mosquitoes on school properties and public spaces,” Stephen Rich, professor of microbiology and executive director of NEWVEC, said in a statement announcing the award.

Rich said deer ticks, or blacklegged ticks, are responsible for spreading a half-dozen different diseases including 400,000 cases of Lyme disease in the U.S. each year. The CDC reports that Lyme disease can cause arthritis, nerve pain, facial paralysis, an irregular heartbeat and swelling of the brain and spinal cord.

“Here in New England, with the changing weather patterns, tick season is almost year-round,” Rich said. “So we’re not only trying to reduce the number of ticks in the wild, but we want to educate people about the best practices so they can keep the risks as low as possible.”

Epidemiologist Andrew Lover will serve as deputy director. An assistant professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Lover said NEWVEC will “develop practical public health tools to understand how and where people are most likely to interact with ticks, which will then allow for well-targeted and efficient health programs.”

The center plans to create a “community of practice” with state and local public health agencies, tribal organizations, private pest control operators, Lyme disease organizations and public and non-profit landowners who promote outdoor activities.

Guang Xu, research professor of microbiology, will run the pathogen testing program and conduct research to evaluate tick suppression methods. According to its website, NEWVEC is interested in, among other things, wearable products that emit repellent and chemicals that kill ticks without harming bees.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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