UI gets $1.8 million from CDC to study bug-borne diseases

UI gets $1.8 million from CDC to study bug-borne diseases

URBANA — The U.S. is not as well prepared to deal with illness spread by insects as most people may think.

That's what a $10 million grant spread over five Midwestern universities, including the University of Illinois, is all about, said a researcher who will be leading work on vector-borne illness at the UI over the next five years.

"This is related to the CDC recognizing that the United States is really not prepared as well as it should be for vector-borne diseases," said Marilyn O'Hara Ruiz, a pathobiology professor at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine.

The UI got a $1.8 million share of the grant money from the CDC that establishes an Upper Midwestern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While mosquito-borne illnesses tend to be in the news most these days, Ruiz said she thinks tick-borne illness is the bigger threat in Illinois.

Tick-borne diseases have been expanding at a rapid rate and one of them, Lyme disease, "is increasing in places where it's been for a long time and it's spreading," she said.

Her own son got Lyme disease several years ago after a trip to Iowa, she said, and his friend got it the same week "and he never left Champaign County."

Her son was very ill with Lyme disease, Ruiz recalled.

"I've never had to care for someone who was that sick," she said.

The UI has already been working on mosquito-borne illness research — for example, developing a model for West Nile infection based on climate. The UI grant team will focus on developing more forecasting models and risk maps for mosquitoes and ticks and the diseases they cause and help determine the level of surveillance and control needed.

With ticks, Ruiz said, she and her team wants to look at factors in the population that relate to weather and types of vegetation.

Information will be shared with other academic institutions and public health departments, with the goal being to create partnerships that can lead to steps to minimize the spread of diseases spread by insects, Ruiz said.