Tick Researchers Get $100,000 after State Slashed Lyme Funding

tick project

Sen. Jen Metzger examines black-legged ticks at the Cary Institute with Disease Ecologist Rick Ostfeld. Courtesy Sen. Metzger

Researchers in Dutchess County studying two ways of killing ticks received $100,000 in state public health discretionary funds after their funding was cut in this year’s budget.

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies launched the five-year Tick Project in 2016, but the $200,000 it received from the state did not make it into the 2019-2020 budget, part of a large cut of Tick-Borne Disease (TBD) research funds.

State Sen. Jen Metzger, a Democrat from Ulster County, held a press conference with Cary Institute President Joshua R. Ginsburg to celebrate the new funding.

Metzger, who has had Lyme five times, called herself “basically the poster child for Lyme in the state Senate” and said she pushed for the funding after being “incredibly disappointed” it was not included in the budget.

Lyme and other TBDs are “really a public health crisis,” Metzger said, “and we really need to be treating it as such, and the state must treat it as such.”

About 10,000 cases of Lyme were reported in New York in 2017, according to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH). However, infection rates for Lyme tend to be ten times the reported number, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suggesting 100,000 people are being infected a year in New York.

The Tick Project is testing out two tick-killing methods in select Dutchess County neighborhoods: one involves spraying a tick-killing native fungus, and the second involves luring mice and other tick-carrying mammals into a “bait box,” where they would brush against a wick containing fipronil, the tick-killing agent in Frontline.

The vast majority of ticks get Lyme from the white-footed mouse – the bacteria’s “reservoir host” – before passing it to humans.

A million dollars allocated in the 2018-2019 budget to The Tick Project and several other TBD prevention initiatives was in the Senate version of this year’s budget but was not included in the Governor’s or Assembly’s versions and did not make it into the final budget.

Many of Metzger’s Democratic colleagues are from the New York City area, and TBDs are not as much of a crisis there, she said.

Of the 10 counties in New York with the highest rates of Lyme disease, nine are in the Hudson Valley/Catskil-ls or Capital Regions, according to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH).

Columbia County had the highest rates of three other severe TBDs in 2017, the last year with available data – babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, according to NYSDOH. Greene County had the highest rate o-f Lyme disease. Less than three weeks ago, an Ulster County man died of the Powassan virus, another TBD.

Another major public health crisis, the opioid epidemic, was competing for funds and attention on the state level, Metzger said, forcing lawmakers to be prudent with ho-w they allocate public health money.

“I clearly believe this is an enormously prudent investment,” she said.-

Preventative tick-fighting methods ultimately saved a huge amount of money in eventual healthcare costs,” President Ginsburg said, adding “an ounce of prevention is—- worth a ton of cure.”

Metzger was hopeful to see a full restoration in funding for TBD research in next year’s budget, she said.

The Tick Project, set to be completed in 2021, will cost $8.8 million. Most of this – $5 million – is from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, Ginsburg said.

“The last $3.8 million was raised in little pieces – the state has been one of those biggest pieces,” he said.

The Tick Project has done “all kinds of crazy fundraising tricks” to make up for lost state revenue before the $100,000 came in, including “Blast Away Lyme Disease,” a trap-shooting fundraiser, Ginsburg added.

The federal government is not spending much money on preventing Lyme, the fastest-growing zoonotic disease in the country, with almost 400,000 cases estimated a year, Ginsburg said, but he hoped New York could be a leader in bringing the bipartisan issue to the national forefront.

The federal government has been spending far less on TBDs than other diseases, according to the Tick-Borne Disease Working Group’s 2018 Report to Congress.

“The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and CDC spend $77,355 and $20,293, respectively, per new surveillance case of HIV/AIDS, and $36,063 and $11,459 per new case of hepatitis C virus, yet only $768 and $302 for each new case of Lyme disease. Federal funding for tick-borne diseases today is orders of magnitude lower, compared to other public health threats, and it has failed to increase as the problem has grown,” according to the report.

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