Texas Tech University’s Biological Threat Research Laboratory has identified the types of mosquitoes that can carry Zika virus in thirteen new counties on the South and High Plains. That means each of those thirteen counties is home to either one or both of the types of mosquitoes which carry Zika: aedes albopictus and aedes aegypti.
According to state records, the counties in the area which have one or both of those mosquitoes are: Oldham, Potter, Randall, Donley, Swisher, Briscoe, Hall, Childress, Bailey, Hale, Motley, Cottle, Cochran, Lubbock, Crosby, Dickens, Terry, Borden, Scurry, and Fisher.
Prior to the push for research in 2016 following the Zika outbreak, the only counties in the area known to have those mosquito species were Lubbock, Terry, Potter, and Randall counties.
“Zika was kind of the wake up call and it triggered into action these kinds of studies to find out what’s really going out there,” explained Steve Presley, Ph.D., who led this regional research project. “And particularly the birth defects associated with Zika are alarming, so that got attention. “
Presley is the Director of the Biological Threat Lab, not only running Texas Tech’s mosquito research, but also using his lab’s work to assist public agencies as they gather data about mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. He is also one of the entomologists working with the Texas Department of State Health Services to identify, control, and prevent Zika in the Lone Star State.
Presley explained that prior to 2016, around half of all Texas counties had no data on whether the types of mosquitoes that carry Zika could live there.
“The Zika outbreak, it was a trigger, but a lot of this work is long overdue,” Presley said. “Because there’s chikungunya, there’s Dengue fever virus, we know the same mosquitoes transmit those to humans, there’s not a shortage of viruses transmitted from mosquitoes that we should be concerned about.”
The information gathered about these mosquitoes will help health officials to know what places are most at risk if Zika does spread.
“Because most of those counties are rural we weren’t sure if we’d find them or not, because both of those species of mosquitoes are considered backyard breeders,” Presley explained.
Zika-carrying mosquitoes tend to breed in small, artificial containers, like toys and tires, which fill with water outdoors. Because the mosquitoes do better in a sheltered environment, they are often found near homes.
In 2015 Texas reported 8 cases of Zika. In 2016 Texas reported 307 cases of Zika. Most of those cases were travel related and contracted while traveling abroad, however six of those cases in Cameron County are believed to be caused by mosquitoes local there.
Presley said the next step in public health mosquito research is to see how the mosquitoes respond to the pesticides cities are treating them with. Many cities, including Lubbock, have treatments to kill mosquito populations and Presley’s lab plans to research whether mosquitoes have developed a resistance to the pesticides being used.
He added that a mild winter and a warm, early spring may lead to an intense mosquito season for the South Central U.S.
“Right now it’s hard to predict in West Texas, but I predict we’ll have a pretty significant mosquito season early on, and especially if we get some rainfall,” Presley said. “If we get some spring rain with the vegetation and the rodent populations that we already have, it may be a big year for the potential for vectorborne diseases in general.”
Presley has already spotted mosquitoes buzzing around in Lubbock, he recommends preparing for the mosquito season. In particular, draining any standing water near your home will be helpful in keeping away the type of mosquitoes which carry Zika, Presley said.