To help respond to emerging and established vector-borne threats, the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases (NEVBD), led by Cornell, has received a five-year, $8.7 million award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to train and educate current and future vector-borne disease professionals and to evaluate the effectiveness of community and regional prevention strategies.
The award, effective as of July, follows $10 million in CDC funding, which launched the NEVBD in 2017. The current grant cycle will seek to engage diverse communities, including Indigenous people, with a goal of increasing training for members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields.
Collaborating institutions include Cornell, Columbia University, the University of Maryland, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, Suffolk County Vector Control and Suffolk County Cooperative Extension, and MaineHealth.
“We’re enhancing our ability to train the next generation of public health professionals who will be more capable of dealing with the next vector-borne disease situation,” said Laura Harrington, NEVBD director and professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
In the Northeast, tick-borne infections are a major issue, while West Nile virus is entrenched in every state, she said.
“We also want to optimize the tools and resources that we have to address and prevent vector-borne disease threats and evaluate how effective they are and how we can improve them,” said Emily Mader, NEVBD program manager in the Department of Entomology in CALS.
In the training portion of the grant, the NEVBD will continue to support and provide continuing education for working professionals. For example, Mader holds a monthly meeting with public health and vector control officials involved in surveillance in the Northeast where they share current human and vector surveillance data with each other. Also, an annual two-and-a-half day bootcamp training program exposes early career public health professionals to essential aspects of vector biology, surveillance and control, while also giving them a chance to network.
The center will continue to support vector biology education programs, aimed in part at recruiting students traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, including an interdisciplinary two-year Master of Science in Entomology at Cornell to educate the next generation of vector biologists and public health practitioners. The degree program, which began in 2018, involves a thesis on a pressing question in the field, where students work closely with vector control professionals. Almost all graduates to date have published their theses and all have found gainful employment. All masters’ students are fully funded with tuition, a stipend and health insurance.
Also, an undergraduate summer internship program will provide room, board and project-related stipends for five Cornell students per year, and subcontracts will support undergraduate students and tribal youth in a similar capacity at participating NEVBD institutions. Students will be placed with a professional mentor and will be introduced to concepts in vector biology, field surveillance, research methods and public health communication.
A collaboration with partner institutions will establish an undergraduate minor and a concentration for graduate students with courses in vector biology and vector-borne diseases. Support will also be available for an Applied Practice Experience program for Cornell and partner institution master of public health (MPH) students, which will provide opportunities to learn from public agency mentors in the field.
Assessing the effectiveness of communication and outreach strategies will be a major focus. Mader is working with colleagues from the Cornell MPH program and the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health to evaluate and optimize messaging from Northeast health departments on the best ways to engage individuals to protect themselves.
“Unfortunately, a lot of vector-borne disease falls to individual personal prevention activities and behaviors,” Mader said. “Sometimes individuals aren’t aware of the risks, and how to use tools and resources available to them.”
Within that, the team will put attention on high-risk populations, such as agricultural and other outdoor workers.
The grant will continue a program to monitor and measure mosquito pesticide resistance in the Northeast. A Lyme disease control project will additionally evaluate an oral vaccine for rodents, which are reservoirs for the Lyme pathogen.
With the new funding, the center will also assess how best to train clinical providers on vector-borne disease topics, as medical schools don’t cover those areas well, Harrington said.
The Office of the Provost has contributed support to fund one M.S. in Entomology student and one undergraduate intern.