DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University biologist Dr. Neeta Connally, director of a four-year federally funded research study at WCSU of tick-borne disease prevention, has been named to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services subcommittee formed to provide expertise to inform the HHS and Congress about effective means to monitor and prevent tick transmission of illnesses.
Connally, currently completing the second year of the Backyard Integrated Tick Management Study funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will bring her expertise as a medical entomologist to the Disease Vectors, Surveillance and Prevention Subcommittee of the HHS Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, established as part of the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016. She is among 53 appointees to six Working Group subcommittees, chosen from 217 nominees nationwide.
“Subcommittee members include scientists, patient advocates and physicians, bringing a diversity of views that will provide a broad perspective about tick-borne diseases,” she observed. The subcommittee will hold meetings through a series of conference calls with the objective of contributing information that will help to inform the Tick-Borne Disease Working Group report to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and the U.S. Congress, scheduled to be submitted by the end of 2018. The report will review current HHS initiatives to address tick-borne diseases, examine research priorities for diagnosis, treatment and prevention, and identify unmet needs in the area.
Connally, who received her Ph.D. in Environmental Science with a specialization in medical entomology from the University of Rhode Island, leads the CDC-funded study along with co-principal investigator Dr. Thomas Mather, director of the TickEncounter Resource Center at URI. Since 2016, the study has enrolled 132 residential households in western Connecticut and southern Rhode Island where field research teams have monitored tick populations and the impact of control measures in preventing tick bites and reducing incidence of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
“We are employing a two-pronged approach to controlling tick populations in residential backyards,” she explained. “The first is a perimeter pesticide application in backyards during the spring; the second is a summer application of rodent bait boxes.” She noted that an important goal of the study is to determine if treating several adjacent properties at the same time is more effective than treating individual household sites.
While a primary focus of her study is the black-legged tick, commonly known as the deer tick, that transmits Lyme disease, Connally noted that eight different tick species have been identified in the United States as carriers of a total of 16 known tick-borne diseases, with some tick species found to carry several different disease agents. “The formation of the Working Group speaks to a recognition at the federal level of tick-borne diseases as a major public health concern, not just in the northeastern United States but nationally,” she said.
“While much of the public discussion of tick-borne human diseases has focused on diagnosis and treatment, there has been relatively little discussion about prevention,” she observed. In bringing the scientific perspective of entomology to the table in the HHS review, she will have the opportunity to explain how tick prevention research can make a critical contribution to reducing the incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
“Not only are we trying to do a good job through prevention research to see what works, but we also face the challenge of communicating our scientific findings in a way that will be well received by the public,” Connally said. One step forward in bridging the communications gap has been the recent award of an Environmental Protection Agency Healthy Communities Grant to support WCSU partnership with the town of Ridgefield in a program to educate residents about safe pesticide use, she noted.
“We’re seeking to reach a better understanding of how to prevent people from getting tick bites,” she said. “If we can do a better job in prevention, we hope that we will not need to focus as much on disease diagnosis and treatment in the future. There has been a lot of research about how ticks behave and how to manage them, but we still have not done a great job in keeping people from getting sick. We’ve come a long way, but there’s more work to be done.”
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