Sen. Susan Collins recently hosted a Senate field hearing on Sept. 5 at the University of Maine’s tick lab to promote awareness of the deadly effects of Lyme disease.
The disease is carried by deer ticks, which have recently widened their range in Maine due to the warming climate. Collins’ field hearing was an effort to promote a bill that would boost federal funding into initiatives to fight Lyme disease, as well as other tick-borne illnesses.
The UMaine tick lab is a cooperative extension of the University of Maine System which is aimed at providing education on tick-borne illnesses. The lab participates in public outreach programs, conducts applied research on ticks in Maine and offers tick diagnostics. People from around the area are invited to submit a tick for testing to the lab for a $15 fee to determine if the tick may be carrying a disease. The lab also contributes to statewide research on tick populations.
The bill that Collins promoted at this event is called the “TICK Act.” This act, if passed, would devote $100 million in federal funding to support data collection and analysis of ticks and population behavior. The funding would be dispersed in allocations of $20 million per year, through 2026. It would also designate an Office of Oversight and Coordination for Vector-Borne Disease at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Our approach to tick-borne disease and Lyme disease is very fragmented today. We are seeking to ultimately halt the progression of Lyme disease,” Collins said at the field hearing.
While Maine is a vacation spot for many during the summer months, the tick population has grown alongside the tourism industry. In the last decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled. With the warming climate, the habitat for Lyme-carrying ticks has expanded into areas that had never seen the disease 10 years ago, including spreading into northeastern Maine.
Dr. Lyle Petersen, the director of the division of vector-borne diseases with the U.S. CDC attended the hearing. He informed people at the hearing that, “there is an urgent need to try to figure out how to better control these tick-borne diseases.”
The Maine CDC warned that, due to weather conditions, this year could lead to a large tick population boom. Winters with heavy snowfall allow ticks to stay insulated and gives them a much higher rate of survival during the winter months. Those ticks that survive the winter have an even higher opportunity for survival during damp and warm spring and summer months.
“We don’t have a unified strategy to control these ticks,” Petersen said. “We need a concentrated effort by state, local, federal and private institutions, working together to find solutions to this growing problem.”
Petersen and Collins both agree that there needs to be a much more comprehensive approach to combating vector-borne illnesses throughout the U.S. If approved, the TICK Act would be the first national effort to combat Lyme disease on a large scale.