Can citizen science help stop mosquito-borne disease outbreaks?

Aedesaegypti_Westmead_Webb

Mosquito surveillance has been a critical component of how health authorities manage the risk of mosquito-borne disease. Data on the abundance and diversity of mosquitoes, together with activity of mosquito-borne pathogens, can guide decisions on when and how to apply mosquito control agents or issue public health warnings.

Almost every state and territory in Australia conducts seasonal mosquito surveillance. The exceptions are Tasmania and ACT, although both have had some limited investigations over the years. Even among those doing routine surveillance, the program structure varies but most include the collection of mosquitoes. This is how we can determine if it really is “the worst mosquito season ever”!

The programs are currently are working well in providing early warnings of outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. These programs often include mosquito trapping undertaken by local governments and, occasionally, members of the public. For may years there has been a strong interest in citizen scientists undertaking mosquito sampling, particularly by some schools. The projects that I’ve been involved with have rarely got off the ground for various reasons. School holidays at the peak of mosquito season doesn’t help. Beyond that, the consumable costs of the traps we use, especially the dry-ice (carbon dioxide) used to bait the traps, can be a barrier to involvement. Dry-ice use in schools, and the associated health and safety issues, has been a cause for concern too. Finally, the fact that mosquitoes may be attracted to traps operated in school or community grounds and that these mosquitoes may be carrying disease-causing pathogens can often raise concerns.

As a result, there really haven’t been any major citizen science based mosquito surveillance programs until recently. Things are changing.

One reason local authorities are starting to turn their minds to a citizen science based approach is that the threat of exotic mosquitoes will require a shift in focus from the swamps to the suburbs. The mosquitoes that drive outbreaks of dengue, particularly Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus live in water-holding containers in backyards and populations are not as easily measured by traditional surveillance approaches. This is why there has been a much stronger engagement with the public in Far North QLD (a region where Aedes aegypti is present and causes occasional outbreaks of dengue) where health authorities are regularly visiting backyards looking for and controlling backyard mosquitoes

There are many reasons why citizen science is starting to come into play when it comes to mosquito surveillance more broadly. Technology is getting better (as highlighted by many smartphone apps) but also, some of the laboratory techniques are getting cheaper. This is a really critical issue.

A breakthrough in rapid testing of mosquitoes led to the development of an award winning initiative in Brisbane by Metro South Health and Queensland Health Forensic & Scientific Services. The Zika Mozzie Seeker project combines this new laboratory technique with DIY mosquito traps by the general public to help track exotic mosquitoes. In short, residents create their own mosquito trap out of a bucket or recycled plastic container, it is filled with water and placed in a yard with a small piece of paper hung inside. Mosquitoes then drop by to lay eggs on the paper. After a couple of weeks, the traps are collected and egg filled paper strips sent to the lab and tested to track the DNA of local and exotic mosquitoes. The project has been an amazing success with around 2,000 participants being involved in recent years (that adds up to about 150,000 mosquito eggs collected and tested). Luckily, no exotic mosquitoes have been detected.

But when it comes to citizen science based projects, perhaps it isn’t the mosquitoes collected (the backyard mosquito battles are fun to track though) but the awareness raised that is important. Awareness not only of the risks posed by mosquitoes, but what you can do about them through the safe and effective use of mosquito repellents and other personal protection measures. Engaging the public through citizen science may be the way to go. It doesn’t always work in reaching new audiences, as was discovered in a mosquito surveillance project in South Australia, but that doesn’t mean it won’t!

Perhaps the rise in new smartphone apps will help. There are a few out there, like the Globe Observer and Mosquito Alert. These, and other smartphone apps, deserve their own post (stay tuned). However, the significant initiative of recent years has been the Global Mosquito Alert project. Launched in May 2017, here is an extract from their media release:

The new initiative, launched under the name ‘Global Mosquito Alert’, brings together thousands of scientists and volunteers from around the world to track and control mosquito borne viruses, including Zika, yellow fever, chikungunya, dengue, malaria and the West Nile virus. It is the first global platform dedicated to citizen science techniques to tackle the monitoring of mosquito populations. The programme is expected to move forward as a collaboration involving the European, Australian and American Citizen Science Associations as well as the developing citizen science community in Southeast Asia.

With such momentum, it is an exciting time to consider the potential of citizen science in Australian mosquito surveillance programs. This is what i will be exploring in my presentation at the Australian Citizen Science Conference in Adelaide this week.

I’ll be presenting the paper on Wednesday 7 February 2018 in the “Empower with Data” session. The full abstract of our presentation is below:

The public as a partner in enhancing mosquito surveillance networks to protect public health

Craig Williams (1), Brian L. Montgomery (2), Phil Rocha (2), and Cameron Webb (3)

(1) University of South Australia, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences; (2) Metro South Public Health Unit, Queensland Health; (3) Medical Entomology, Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, University of Sydney

Mosquito-borne diseases are pervasive public health concerns on a global scale. Strategic management of risk requires well-designed surveillance programs, typically coordinated by local health authorities, for both endemic and exotic mosquitoes as well as the pathogens that they may transmit. There is great potential to utilise citizen science to expand the reach of current surveillance programs, particularly those centred on urban areas. There is increasing focus internationally on the role of citizen science in mosquito surveillance as evidenced by the establishment of the ‘Global Mosquito Alert’ project driven by multiple international stakeholders and citizen science associations. In Australia, new initiatives to engage the public in mosquito surveillance are emerging in multiple centres; utilizing a range of emerging field and laboratory technologies that remove previously existing barriers to community involvement. In South Australia, citizen science entomology programs have been trialed, and mosquito trapping and identification technology to expand existing trapping networks has been assessed. In suburban South-East Queensland, Zika Mozzie Seeker is linking citizen scientists into a network by using new laboratory techniques to rapidly screen for Ae. aegypti DNA in large numbers of eggs collected from DIY ovitraps,. In NSW, citizen science is being used to promote biodiversity and delineate pest and non-pest activity of mosquitoes associated with urban wetlands and surrounding suburbs. Citizen science holds great potential for public engagement activities as well as serving to enhance existing surveillance operations.

 

Join the conversation on Twitter by following Dr Cameron Webb, A/Prof Craig Williams and keep an eye on the meeting via the hashtag

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