This March 2002 file photo shows a deer tick under a microscope in the entomology lab at the University of Rhode Island. Credit: Victoria Arocho | AP

The new Kay Hagan Tick Act, signed into law Dec. 20, authorizes the use of $150 million in federal funds to bolster research, outreach and diagnosis of tick-borne diseases.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and named in honor of former Sen. Kay Hagan, who died Oct. 28 due to complications from the tick-borne disease known as the Powassan virus.

“I’m truly thrilled to have brought the bill from concept to law so quickly,” Collins said. “It’s something that’s very practical and is going to make a real difference. I’m not saying it’s going to end all tick-borne illnesses, but I do believe it will help people avoid the illnesses, and if they’re bitten, get quick and appropriate treatment.”

The act passed in the Senate on Dec. 19, as a part of the 2020 appropriations package, and was signed into law by President Donald Trump on the evening of Dec. 20. Its purpose is “to provide assistance to combat the escalating burden of Lyme disease and other tick and vector-borne diseases and disorders.”

[As ticks continue to spread in Maine, here’s what to expect in the coming years]

The Kay Hagan Tick Act requires the Department of Health and Human Services to develop and implement a national strategy to address vector-borne diseases, including tick-borne diseases.

In addition, the act reauthorizes federal funding for the Regional Centers of Excellence in Vector-Borne Disease for five years at $10 million per year. This funding was initially allotted in 2017 and expires in 2021. There are five centers, located at universities in New York, California, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin.

The act also authorizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to annually award $20 million in grants to state health departments for the next five years — a grand total of $100 million — to support research of tick-borne and other vector-borne diseases, as well improve treatment and raise awareness.

The bipartisan legislation was supported by more than 155 organizations and cosponsored by 32 senators, including Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, who authored and introduced the bill with Collins and Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. It was informed by a 2018 report issued by the federal Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, as well as a field hearing convened by Collins in September at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory Tick Lab in Orono.

Collins said that she took the lead in this legislation for two major reasons.

“One, I was aware that Maine had the highest incidence of Lyme disease per capita in the entire nation, so this is a serious problem for our state given that it’s difficult to diagnose and there’s also disagreement on how it should be treated,” Collins said. “And second, I know so many people personally who have been afflicted by tick-borne illnesses, and that includes a former staffer of mine who has permanent health effects because he was not diagnosed correctly for a long time.”

In Maine, Lyme disease has become increasingly common in the past few decades, with numbers of new cases reaching an all-time high in 2017. That year, Maine’s incidence of confirmed Lyme cases was 107 per 100,000 residents, the highest of any state.

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The number of new Lyme disease cases in 2019 are still being processed, but the Maine CDC has reported that two other tick-borne diseases — anaplasmosis and babesiosis — have hit an all-time high in Maine this year.

“Lyme disease and other tick-borne pathogens continue to have significant impacts on public health in Maine and throughout much of the United States,” said James Dill, pest management specialist and coordinator at the UMaine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Lab. “The advancement of The Kay Hagan Tick Act signals a commitment from Congress to tackle the threats associated with ticks and to dedicate resources to managing tick-borne diseases on a national scale.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.