CDC helps fund Penn State’s vector control program


July 21, 2023

Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences

Erika Machtinger, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and leader of Penn State Extension’s vector-borne disease team, trains vector professionals about tick surveillance. Photo: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named Penn State as the lead institution for one of the new Vector-Borne Disease Regional Training and Evaluation Centers.

These centers are aimed at enhancing national efforts to prevent and control vector-borne diseases.

The CDC awarded a total of more than $7.1 million to Penn State and four other entities for the first year of the centers. Penn State will receive $1.25 million in the first year, with a projected total of $6.25 million over five years.

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted by vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, which spread pathogens through their bites. Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. Reports on this tick-borne pathogen indicate that Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 in the country for the number of Lyme disease cases per year. The goal of the new Regional Training and Evaluation Center is to reduce Lyme and other vector-borne diseases by understanding the needs of at-risk groups, targeting training for these groups and evaluating the impact at reducing disease burdens.

Project director Dr. Erika Machtinger, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and leader of Penn State Extension’s vector-borne disease team, noted that arthropod vectors are a growing threat to public health and agricultural systems worldwide.

“In the United States, vector-borne diseases have tripled in the past 13 years,” Dr. Machtinger said in the news release. “There is a critical need for effective, targeted messaging on vector prevention and control strategies, and a need to evaluate current prevention and control methods.”

As director, Dr. Machtinger will manage student and professional training and evaluation programs. With eight years of experience evaluating tick-control tools in the northeastern U.S., Dr. Machtinger has received national recognition for her teaching and accomplishments in extension education. She established the Penn State Extension vector-borne disease team in 2019 to address the growing crisis in Pennsylvania. This team has been recognized nationally as the first of its kind.

“Penn State Extension is a leader in transformative education, a premier extension system in the United States and well-positioned to support and elevate the output of the VectorED Network,” Dr. Machtinger said.

She added that the foundation of the VectorEd Network is to leverage the Cooperative Extension System across regions to target audiences most affected by vector-borne diseases.

Dr. Machtinger explained that the project will focus on increasing vector-borne disease education program capacity in a large part of the eastern U.S. This will entail training professionals in academia, government, health services, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector by leveraging and expanding existing educational infrastructure.

Throughout this five-year regional project, Penn State Extension will collaborate with counterparts at The Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Delaware.

Emily Struckhoff, a vector-borne disease program specialist with Penn State Extension, will serve as the Extension training director for the network. She will oversee expansion and development of extension programming related to vector-borne disease, including training for pest and vector professionals, veterinarians, and academic professionals.

Dr. Machtinger said in the news release, “The goal of the network is to become a trusted and impactful resource for vector-borne disease prevention and control. The program will train undergraduate and graduate students to increase the capacity for vector-borne disease response, establish a student training network, and develop courses and degree and certificate programs.”

In addition, an advisory board for vector education and training will develop continuing education, certification programs and remote/in-person conferences based on needs assessments of professional groups such as veterinary, pest and vector control, public health, collegiate health and environmental safety professionals.

The program also will evaluate current prevention and control methods and focus on improving messaging campaigns based on social and behavioral science methodologies.

“I am excited to build targeted education programs that use science-based principles to change behavior,” Dr. Machtinger said.

To reach target populations and address health inequities, the center will engage existing education networks, including Extension, pest and vector control groups, veterinary organizations, and universities.

The funding also will support the creation of four new vector-borne disease extension educator positions: one at Penn State, and one each at the University of Tennessee, Ohio State and the University of Delaware. These professionals will deliver educational programs, workshops and other outreach activities to share information and promote learning. In addition, a new evaluation specialist will work with Penn State Extension to develop effective evaluation, performance management and improvement metrics.

“With the support and leadership of Penn State Extension, we have incredible capacity to build something special to reduce vector-borne disease burdens,” Dr. Machtinger said.

Extension’s vector-borne disease team offers an abundance of resources on ticks and mosquitoes, including information about common ticks and mosquitoes in Pennsylvania, vector-borne diseases and vector management.


About the Author

Ellen Wagner is a former digital editor for PMP magazine.

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