As Zika Spreads, UF/IFAS Faculty on Front Lines Battling the Virus
Newswise — GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty are on the front lines in the battle against the zika virus, as entomologists study the ability of at least two mosquito species to transmit the virus and ways of reducing pesticide resistance.
They’re also teaching people statewide about how to prevent spreading zika.
As of Aug. 18, 510 American residents had contracted the virus. Florida has 479 zika cases, according to the state health department; 35 people in Florida have contracted zika via local transmission, meaning they didn’t bring it back from overseas.
Scientists at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Florida, have made Zika a top priority. The virus is most likely transmitted by Aedes aegypti – the yellow fever mosquito – and Aedes albopictus – the Asian tiger mosquito.
In February, when the virus started making international news, Roxanne Connelly, a professor of medical entomology and UF/IFAS Extension specialist at the FMEL, put on a statewide zika webinar to tell Extension faculty the do’s and don’ts of trying to contain zika. One of her key messages – that still holds true -- was to get rid of standing water and containers that could get water in them because those are mosquito breeding grounds. The other key element was to wear repellant with DEET.
These days, Connelly is working with other UF/IFAS Extension entomologists such as Faith Oi, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and mosquito control districts on zika educational workshops and school newsletters throughout Florida.
Additionally, Connelly said she and FMEL director Jorge Rey are working with the Florida Department of Health to provide updated distribution and insecticide susceptibility of container mosquitoes in Florida. “Her work to identify insecticide resistance in the important zika vectors should allow the use of most effective insecticides for mosquito control,” said Blair Siegfried, professor and chair of the UF/IFAS entomology department. “It is my understanding that resistance has long been suspected but never really characterized among Florida populations, and resistance monitoring is therefore particularly important.” Connelly is also the team leader for a zika research and Extension project being coordinated out of Louisiana State University.
Lastly, Connelly is working the UF/IFAS Extension county offices throughout Florida on a survey for container mosquitoes. That project will include using computer models to show mosquito locations and predicted movement. In addition, she will study vector competence – or the ability of the mosquito to transmit the virus -- and insecticide resistance.
As Zika-specific data become available, associate professor Cynthia Lord will use transmission models to investigate potential consequences of Zika introductions into Florida and how this may differ from chikungunya or dengue introductions, Rey said.
Associate professor Chelsea Smartt is returning to Brazil to provide real-time information about the involvement of the Asian tiger mosquito in the outbreak, as most scientists are focusing on involvement of the yellow fever mosquito. Information gathered by Smartt and her colleagues would improve the ability of mosquito control officials to respond to these viruses ahead of human cases.
Among other faculty at the FMEL, assistant professor Barry Alto is working on how well Florida mosquitoes transmit Zika to humans.
“The FMEL has expertise and a proven track record of research on all aspects of the biology of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus and of the arboviruses that they transmit, including dengue chikungunya and now Zika,” Rey said.
FMEL faculty have put together this website, http://fmel.ifas.ufl.edu/Zika/index.htm, which has links to frequently asked questions and answers about zika and information about zika in an easily digestible UF/IFAS Extension document. It also features a link that informs readers about the latest information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Siegfried gave a several other examples of Gainesville campus research aimed at battling zika:
• UF/IFAS entomology professor Jeff Bloomquist, who’s affiliated with UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, is working on developing new synthetic insecticides and looking for new natural products from various parts of the world for controlling Aedes mosquitoes. His lab is also evaluating new synthetic and natural products for use as repellents for bite protection.
• UF/IFAS entomology associate professor Dan Hahn is just returning from a visit to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to discuss strategies and options for developing mosquito
sterilization methods that could be used in programs similar to those used successfully for other insect pests such as fruit flies.
• UF/IFAS entomology professor Phil Koehler is developing traps that can be used to attract and kill adult mosquitoes and prevent immature mosquitoes from developing into adults.