UK mosquito expert heads team to try to stop Zika virus

UK mosquito research

Dr. Grayson Brown talks about research being done at UK on mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus.
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Dr. Grayson Brown talks about research being done at UK on mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus.

Two years ago, after the mosquito-borne diseases dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya became major global health crises, entomologists began planning an international summit on how to deal with the problem, not knowing that another mosquito-borne virus, Zika, would add urgency to their efforts.

Grayson Brown, director of the University of Kentucky’s Public Health entomology laboratory and former president of the Entomological Society of America, is spearheading the March 13 meeting in Brazil.

While medical authorities cope with an outbreak of babies born with microcephaly and other problems associated with the little-known Zika virus, Brown and the entomologists will discuss how to stop the spread of the virus by stopping the mosquito that spreads it, Aedes aegypti.

Dengue and chikungunya have become global epidemics, with a reported 2.35 million cases in the Americas alone, Brown said. “Now that Zika has become an important health crisis, our mission has become even more critical. It is vital that the world’s scientific leaders work together on this issue.”

The only way to manage these diseases, Brown said, is by managing the vector, the mosquito.

A native of Africa, the Aedes aegypti now exists in subtropical regions throughout the world. In the United States, the mosquito is found mostly in the southernmost states, including Texas, Florida and California.

Could Zika come to Kentucky?

Brown said last week that he is evaluating that very question, working on a threat assessment for Gov. Matt Bevin to determine what the state could do to prepare.

In 2011 and 2013, Western Kentucky had to cope with massive mosquito blooms caused by flooding and changes in water control, he said.

“In the Land Between the Lakes, they had 30 mosquito bites a minute in places like Cadiz and Murray,” Brown said. Then-Gov. Steve Beshear and then-Agriculture Commissioner James Comer had to authorize an emergency response.

“The state of Kentucky spent its entire annual mosquito-control budget in one night,” — about $2 million — to treat about 10 percent of the state.

This time, he said, he hopes Kentucky will be prepared.

“At this point, there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll have a serious problem, so we need a contingency plan,” Brown said. He said he’s encouraging officials to get the paperwork ready to apply for federal aid because the process is so cumbersome.

But the long-term answer isn’t in emergency response but in everyday actions, year in, year out.

“We know how to control Aedes aegypti, but the problem is maintaining a sustained program that is effective,” Brown said. “Something like Zika will come along and there will be a flurry of public interest, a slug of public money, and then it dies away. And we’re left just as susceptible to mosquito-borne disease as we were before.”

Brown said the A. aegypti mosquito was almost eradicated once, but the effort was abandoned prematurely in the 1960s.

“This is a para-domestic mosquito — it’s only found around human habitation. It breeds in containers, and only in municipalities,” Brown said.

Widespread spraying, public service announcements and teaching kids in schools to hunt out potential breeding grounds almost wiped it out.

“Training kids to go look for water turned out to be very effective,” he said.

Then the effort stopped, and the species has come roaring back.

“The real problem is ... maintaining the quality level of a management program,” Brown said.

He hopes to again marshal the world’s entomology societies, which have more than 100 years of expertise, to help prepare large-scale municipal management programs. During the summit in Brazil, entomologists will meet with leaders from government agencies, public health organizations and potential donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discuss how to create a long-term, sustainable way to suppress the mosquito’s population.

Another global meeting, the International Congress of Entomology, is planned for Orlando, Fla., in September to map out efforts for Africa and Asia as well as the Americas.

They will be lining up plans for rolling out global control efforts over the next year, something Brown is looking forward to.

“My first job in entomology was in Palm Beach County (Fla.) mosquito control; that’s just what I got into,” Brown said. “Working in public health, most of the time, is in third-world countries. ... You can come away knowing that there is area where a lot of people are not sick because of what you did, and that’s a good feeling.”

Increased international traffic and travel brought the Zika virus, which had been known in Africa, to South America, he said. When Zika met a population that had never been exposed before, the virus changed.

“Once it got to South America, it mutated, so now it has a much higher tendency to cause birth defects,” Brown said. “It’s really adapted itself to attacking humans.”

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