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Calls Continue To Better Fund Tick-Borne Disease Research

Courtesy of the NYS Department of Health

With the COVID pandemic coming under control, lawmakers in the Hudson Valley and other Lyme disease hotspots hope attention, and money, return to tick-borne disease education and research.

It seems ticks were out in greater force in the spring than in recent history.

“The early data from our area in the Hudson Valley suggests that, at least for black-legged ticks, this is a greater than normal year,” says Ostfeld. “An average year is dangerous, and this is even more dangerous in 2021.”

Especially, says Dr. Rick Ostfeld, the nymph-stage tick, which was active in June and poses the greatest risk of disease transmission to people.  On a personal note, Ostfeld says he also is seeing many more dog ticks. Republican state Senator Sue Serino also notices a tick surge.

“Just stepping off of the blacktop, it was amazing how quick my husband got four ticks on him,” Serino says.

Stepping off the blacktop, momentarily, into some tall grass. Others in the region tell similar stories. Again, Serino:

“But now, it is so bad. I just had a woman do a fundraiser for raising money for research, for the prevention of, education, prevention because her husband got neurological Lyme and he died by suicide, sadly. He couldn’t take it,” Serino says. “So that just happened this year.”

In 2018, the New York state budget included an unprecedented $1 million for efforts to combat Lyme and tick-borne disease. Since, the budget has allocated $250,000. Ostfeld, a distinguished senior scientist with the Millbrook-based Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says Lyme disease research needs a major financial boost.

“We need the help. We, we’re struggling to address the issues,” Ostfeld says. “We don’t lack ideas and, in many areas, we don’t lack for technology to do the kind of research we want to do. We lack the financial support to do it as effectively as we possibly can in trying to address, to solve the problems, to understand tick biology, to educate the public appropriately.”

One bill that could help a bit passed the Senate, but not the Assembly. Democrat Pete Harckham of the 40th District sponsored the bill in the Senate, with Serino as a co-sponsor.

“This bill would give people the opportunity to play a role in supporting for research, prevention and education by donating to a tax checkoff, and that would be a new fund that would be dedicated to bolstering the research in the field because that’s where we need the money for that,” Serino says.

The bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Democrat Didi Barrett. She and Serino have worked together on other Lyme-related bills. Serino represents the 41st District, which includes a large portion of Dutchess County and part of Putnam County, while Barrett represents the 106th district, containing parts of Dutchess and Columbia Counties. All have high numbers of cases of Lyme and tick-borne diseases.

A bill on the governor’s desk Barrett sponsored, Serino co-sponsored and Democratic Senator Michelle Hinchey sponsored, directs the commissioner of Agriculture and Markets to develop a public awareness campaign regarding Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. A measure calling for tick warning signs at state parks was signed in 2019, and Barrett says she has an annual resolution.

“Historically, May has been Lyme Disease Awareness Month in the state of New York, and I have started sponsoring that resolution in April instead of in May because I really think we need to make people aware that ticks are pretty much active once, at any point that the temperature is above freezing, and certainly it starts much sooner than May and, with climate change, we’ve seen it even earlier,” Barrett says.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year. New York is a hotspot. Serino, whose brother was sick with a tick-borne disease for 10 years before being diagnosed, says convincing state legislators outside regions with high numbers of ticks and disease of the urgent need for funding can be challenging.

“I talk to our other colleagues and I said to them, even though you live in New York City, where are your constituents vacationing?” Serino says. “They’re coming up to the Hudson Valley, to the Adirondacks, and they have to be aware of Lyme and tick-borne diseases, and this money actually helps that.”

Barrett, who launched a public awareness campaign a few years ago using #gettickedoff, wants the state to play more of a role.

“Well, I have actually found a lot of interest and support from my colleagues across the state,” says Barrett. “Certainly, as you say, Long Island, I mean, I think some of the New York City members are understanding more, but we’ve, we’ve really developed a coalition starting with Central New York, the Central New York Lyme Alliance, to really work together to put the focus and put pressure on the state  and, in this case, it’s the Health, Department of Health, which has just been, I think, less than engaged and less than active, and I understand they’ve been dealing with COVID and a lot of other things, but this has been an ongoing crisis in New York state.”

A state Department of Health spokeswoman says New York has long been a national leader in tick-borne disease surveillance and in conducting activities to educate people on how to best protect themselves and their families from Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, and that work continues. During the COVID-19 response, she says the state Health Department continues tick surveillance, collecting ticks from nearly all counties, and testing those ticks for the presence of pathogens. It also continues to collect ticks in the lower Hudson Valley to monitor the spread of the newly identified Asian Longhorned tick. In addition, the Health Department has been performing research on the economic burden of Lyme disease, the practices of tick removal and tick-borne disease education in schools, and the feasibility of utilizing 4-poster devices to help control ticks. The 4-Poster device is a passive feeding station that applies a pesticide to white-tailed deer as they feed.

Meantime, federal lawmakers say they are putting on the pressure to increase funding. Democratic New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in June called for $12 million for the Department of Defense’s Tick-Borne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) and additional funding for tick-borne disease research at the CDC. Again, Barrett:

“Obviously, she represented this region in Congress when she was first elected before she became a senator, so she understands the history here and she knows how pervasive it is, and I think it’s really important that we… We have the 21st Century Working Group, which has been, I don’t know how active it’s been lately, but that was an important step for the federal government, and this is obviously hugely important,” says Barrett. “I mean, there’s an enormous need for the research that money like that could support, so I’m really delighted to hear that this is on her radar screen as a priority.”

The Tick-Borne Disease Working Group was authorized by the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016. Fellow Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts also signed the letter with Gillibrand. The Cary Institute’s Ostfeld:

“$12 million is a healthy boost, but it is not a lot of money. It doesn’t go very far. It would support a few projects for a few years, which is definitely worthwhile and valuable and hopefully would be only a start,” says Ostfeld. “It doesn’t measure up to the magnitude of the problem, in my view.”

He says it is encouraging to have Gillibrand, Serino, Barrett and others pushing for more funding for tick-borne disease research and education. A few days after the letter requesting $12 million, Blumenthal, Gillibrand, Markey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, calling for $50 million to bolster the CDC’s efforts to prevent and address tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, including $20 million for grants for states.

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