CDC Designates New England Center of Excellence in Vector-borne Diseases at UMass Amherst
AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a $10 million, five-year award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create the New England Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEWVEC).
The UMass-based center is one in a group of regional centers of excellence designated by the CDC to reduce the risk of vector-borne diseases – such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus – spread by ticks, mosquitoes and other blood-sucking arthropods across the U.S.
Vector-borne disease expert Stephen Rich, professor of microbiology, is the principal investigator on the project and will serve as the executive director of NEWVEC, whose three-pronged mission will leverage and integrate applied research, training and community of practice to prevent and reduce tick- and mosquito-borne diseases in New England. NEWVEC aims to bring together academic communities, public health practitioners and residents and visitors across the Northeast.
“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. It is also important to inform the public on best practices to keep tick and mosquitoes from biting people and their pets,” Rich says. “Part of that mission entails training public health entomologists – undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D.-level students – who are going to be the next generation of people confronting these challenges.”
Infectious disease epidemiologist Andrew Lover, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, will serve as deputy director of the center, with co-principal investigator Guang Xu at UMass Amherst, and co-principal investigators at Northern Vermont University, the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island and Western Connecticut State University.
“This center fills a critical gap in responses to vector-borne disease in the region,” says Lover, who aims to apply his prior work with regional malaria elimination programs to build strong networks across the Northeast region. “As pathogens and vectors don’t pay attention to borders, coordination across states is essential for public health response. Among other things, we’ll 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.” His lab also will provide technical assistance to directly support local health practitioners in optimizing vector surveillance strategies and designing operational research to improve program effectiveness.
Xu, research professor of microbiology, will be responsible for the center’s pathogen testing core and will conduct applied research in the evaluation of tick suppression approaches.
Rich notes that blood-sucking ticks transmit more vector-borne diseases than any other arthropod in North America, accounting for some 400,000 cases of Lyme disease alone every year. “And at least a half-dozen other pathogens are associated with the blacklegged tick,” commonly known as the deer tick, he adds. “It’s kind of a silent epidemic.”
The researchers say it’s critical to attack the problem on all fronts by using applied research projects to reduce tick populations and optimize personal protection and control products, and by training public health students and workers, as well as individuals.
“Here in New England, with the changing weather patterns, tick season is almost year-round,” Rich says. “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.”
The partnerships and collaborations across New England – from the research labs into the communities – will enable NEWVEC to have the greatest impact and best strategies for reducing and preventing vector-borne diseases.
“We’re going to communicate the best research to our stakeholders,” Rich says. “But the best communication is two-way, so we’ll ensure that the research investigators hear from end users. If something works well in the lab but cannot be used in the field or in households, then we need to adjust in order to come up with better solutions. This is where we hope NEWVEC can be a game changer.”