AMHERST — UMass 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.
Stephen Rich, vector-borne disease expert and professor of microbiology, is the principal investigator on the project and will serve as the executive director of NEWVEC, whose three-pronged mission will 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 ticks and mosquitoes from biting people and their pets,” Rich said. “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,” said 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.