Protecting Against Zika: TTU Researchers Lead New Mosquito Testing Across the Panhandle

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Concerns about Zika virus are pushing the Texas to learn more about which areas of the Lone Star State are more at risk if the virus were to spread.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has been working with mosquito experts from around the state. On the panhandle this week, that partnership with mosquito experts is leading to more information than ever before about what risk communities in the area might face when it comes to Zika.  Tuesday and Wednesday, mosquito egg traps or “ovitraps” were sent from Texas Tech’s mosquito researchers to Texas A&M Agrilife Extension agents to leave in 32 counties around the Panhandle– reaching as far as the Amarillo and Midland areas.

“As Texas Department of State Health Services dug deeper, they realized that about 66 percent of all the counties in Texas had no documented evidence of aedes albopictus and aedes aegypti (the types of mosquitoes which carry Zika)  being surveyed for. In fact 200 counties, haven’t surveyed for mosquitoes in over 2 years,” said Steve Presley, Ph.D.

Presley is the Director of the Biological Threat Research Laboratory at Texas Tech’s Institute of Environmental and Human Health, he has spent over three decades researching mosquitoes and the viruses they carry.  He has been collaborating with DSHS for months on how to combat Zika. 

“The Department of State Health Services in Austin put together a program with a group of scientists mainly in academia, Texas A& M, University of Texas El Paso, us here at Texas Tech, to develop, implement and conduct a surveillance program across the state of Texas in the various counties where there’s no record of various mosquito species occurring,” Presley explained.

After their team divided the state into five regions, Presley’s lab was partnered with the Panhandle region.

In Lubbock, mosquitoes are tested regularly and the city is aware that both types of mosquitoes which can carry Zika live there. But many counties with smaller populations don’t have the same resources for vector control and mosquito testing.

“[The goal is] to create a more up-to-date, more accurate map of where those two mosquito species occur, all as a prevention method to identify where Zika virus, Chikungunya virus, or Dengue fever virus could be transmitted throughout Texas,” Presley said. 

The traps Presley’s lab sent out this week will then be returned for testing.

“Each county will send in five different egg strips each week from 32 counties, and when we get them in we will have the eggs from the strips and then begin rearing them as mosquitoes,” Presley said. From there, Presley’s lab will determine  which types of mosquitoes are coming in from each county. 

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension explained that they are responsible for distributing the traps in each of the counties, with the goal of placing them in backyard environments where Zika-carrying mosquitoes are known to breed. 

This study will go on until the first freeze or when mosquito numbers drop off, it is designed to give the state an initial idea of where Zika has the potential to spread.  The mosquitoes in Presley’s lab will only be identified to see what type they are, they won’t be tested for Zika until Zika cases begin appearing in the counties they came from.

Presley is excited to pull together this new research and strengthen Texas’ knowledge about the Zika virus. But he also hopes that the public doesn’t overlook the risks of other mosquito-borne diseases this mosquito season.

“One thing that seems to be forgotten is we have to be vigilant about West Nile virus and St. Louis Encephalitis,” Presley said. “So with the type of year we’ve had with rainfall interspersed with drought periods, we’ll probably  see a lot of West Nile virus at least in the bird-mosquito cycle, hopefully not in the humans.”

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