New funding will enable scientists at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) to improve our understanding of how changes in land use, climate and agriculture may increase the risk of ticks and mosquitoes spreading diseases to humans and animals in the UK.

Infections through tick bites, including Lyme Disease as well as bacteria and viruses that can cause severe illness or death in livestock, are increasing in countries with previously milder weather. Meanwhile, climate change is also expected to make the arrival of mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus more likely in the UK in the next 30 years.

Two new projects being funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Defra reflect a ‘One Health’ approach to vector-borne diseases, integrating animal, human and environmental health and sectors. 

The first of the two projects, co-led by Dr Bethan Purse of UKCEH and Dr Caroline Millins of University of Liverpool, will investigate how future changes in climate, national policies to expand woodland cover and areas for wildlife in and around farms, as well as animal density in the UK, will affect transmission of four tick-borne diseases. Lyme disease can cause long-term debilitating effects in people, while Louping ill disease, tick-borne fever and babesiosis can affect cattle and sheep production, damaging farmers’ livelihoods, and are considered a high priority for action by farming and veterinary organisations. 

The three-year OPTICK project has been awarded £1 million. A multidisciplinary team of experts in ecology, epidemiology, economics, public and animal health, and social science, will work with land managers to jointly develop recommendations for policy and management, to mitigate the threat of tick-borne diseases.   

The team include researchers and risk managers from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the University of Liverpool, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Moredun Research Institute. They will draw up maps to highlight the areas that will be most at risk and put forward effective disease, land management and surveillance strategies to combat the threat.

Dr Purse, who is already involved in research to investigate tick-borne diseases in the UK and India, explains: “The significant threats posed by ticks to human and animal health are currently difficult to manage due to under-reporting and a lack of effective vaccines, but are likely to increase as woodland is expanded on agricultural land in the future. 

“Therefore, there is an urgent need to establish the current distribution, economic burden and societal impacts of tick-borne disease in livestock, and identify gaps in surveillance. We will also analyse how land, health and livestock management and policies, as well as climate, can affect tick populations and the current and future risks of diseases being transmitted to livestock and people. Finally, we will identify the interventions that are most cost-effective and align with farming priorities and practice.”

The researchers will focus in particular on the tick species Ixodes ricinus, a key vector in the spread of infections, which is widely distributed and expanding in UK woodlands and agricultural land. 

The second project, aimed at improving our understanding of how different climate change scenarios could increase the risk of mosquito-borne disease in Scotland and enhancing preparedness, has been awarded a £1.25m grant from UKRI and Defra. It will involve scientists from the University of Glasgow, UKCEH and UKHSA, and will have a specific focus on risks from pathogens that could be introduced from migratory birds.

The project will fill a gap in UKHSA’s surveillance, which is currently focused on England and Wales. It will involve screening migratory birds across Scotland for the presence of emerging pathogens, including West Nile and Usutu viruses, and results will be used to model the risk of introduction and transmission.  

Dr Steven White and Dr Dominic Brass of UKCEH will be carrying out the modelling work. Dr White said: “Assessing the current and future risk of mosquito-borne diseases in Scotland is of the upmost importance for national planning. In this project, we will integrate cutting-edge models with novel surveillance data to predict the potential areas of risk of disease transmission in Scotland.”

UKRI and Defra are funding eight projects to tackle vector-borne disease in the UK, with funding totalling £7.5 million. For details, see the announcement on the UKRI website.