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This story comes from our partners at WPSU.

As Pennsylvania and other states grapple with the growing problem of Lyme disease and other tick-borne pathogens, a team in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences is focused on turning that around.

Called a Vector-Borne Disease Regional Training and Evaluation Center, the Penn State team will get about $6.25 million over five years from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with other institutions and lead the regional effort. It comes as the CDC estimates the country is seeing nearly a half million cases of Lyme disease every year.

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“Pennsylvania is number one in total cases of Lyme disease in the country,” said Erika Machtinger, an associate professor of entomology and the project director. One reason, she noted, is that Pennsylvania has lots of wild space.

“And that’s a wonderful thing, right? So we have millions of acres of state owned or monitored or managed forests, private forests. And with that comes wildlife,” Machtinger said. “And when we go into places where wildlife happen to be there is a potential where we can expose ourselves to things like ticks and tick-borne diseases.”

An adult female blacklegged tick on a blade of grass.

An adult female blacklegged tick on a blade of grass. Photo: Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

Lyme disease may be the most well-known tick-borne disease in Pennsylvania, and the project is focused primarily on ticks.

“But that’s not exclusive to Lyme disease. There are other pathogens transmitted by ticks, pathogens and conditions that we’re seeing more of in the areas where our the region that we’re in,” Machtinger said.

What they’ll do

The project has several parts. One is education and outreach for specific groups, like veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

“There are 65 million dog owners in the United States,” Machtinger said. “And research has shown 90% of them get their information from their vets on parasites. And so training that trusted network of veterinarians is very important, so they can give that information to the people who need it.”

Another part includes testing the effectiveness of products such as tick tubes, which homeowners can use to target ticks feeding on mice.

The project will also include work on understanding attitudes people have about a Lyme disease vaccine that’s being developed, and addressing those questions and concerns. And, it includes measuring the effectiveness of their efforts.

In the meantime, Machtinger recommended taking simple steps: “The most important thing people can do is make it part of their routine that when they go outside, they’re thinking, just like sunscreen, I’m going to protect myself. So putting on repellents using permethrin-treated clothing and doing tick checks when they come home.”

This photo shows two adult female blacklegged ticks on a hiking boot.

This photo shows two adult female blacklegged ticks on a hiking boot. Photo: Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

The regional center Penn State is leading is one of five the CDC is funding around the country. Penn State Extension will be working with teams at Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Delaware.