Ross River virus in Sydney, should we be worried?

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Health authorities in NSW recently released warnings to avoid mosquito bites following the detection of Ross River virus in wetlands along two major river systems in metropolitan Sydney. Whats going on and should these findings be something to be worried about?

What is Ross River virus?

Ross River virus is the most commonly reported mosquito-borne disease in Australia. The virus is spread by the bite of a mosquito and about 40 different mosquito species have been implicated in its transmission.

The disease caused by Ross River virus is not fatal but it can be severely debilitating.

Thousands of Australian’s are infected each year. We have some idea of the quantity of infections as Ross River virus disease is classified as a notifiable disease. While the official statistics indicate there are around 5,000 cases of illness across the country (there are between 500 and 1,500 cases per year in NSW), there are likely to be many more people that experience a much milder illness and so never get blood tests to confirm infection. These people won’t appear in official statistics.

What makes Ross River virus a fascinating pathogen to study is also what makes it extremely difficult to predict outbreaks. Transmission cycles require more than just mosquitoes. Mosquitoes don’t emerge from local wetlands infected with the virus, they need to bite an animal first and become infected themselves before then being able to pass on the pathogen to people.

It is generally thought that kangaroos and wallabies are the most important animals driving outbreak risk. However, we’re starting to better understand how the diversity of local wildlife may enhance, or reduce, likely transmission risk.

How was the virus found in Sydney?

The recent warnings have been triggered by the results of mosquito trapping and testing around Sydney. NSW Health coordinates an arbovirus and mosquito monitoring program across the state and this includes surveillance locations within metropolitan Sydney.

Mosquitoes are collected using traps baited with carbon dioxide. They trick the mosquitoes into thinking the trap is an animal. By catching mosquitoes, we can better understand how the pest and public health risks vary across the city and the conditions that make mosquitoes increase (or decrease) in numbers.

It mostly occurs around the metropolitan region’s northern and southern river systems and generally associated with estuarine or brackish-water wetlands. In these areas, there are often abundant mosquitoes and wildlife. Along the Parramatta River, there are often abundant mosquito populations but given the heavily urbanised landscape, there aren’t many kangaroos and wallabies.

The nuisance impacts of mosquitoes, such as Aedes vigilax, dispersing from the estuarine wetlands of the Parramatta River can create challenges for local authorities. These challenges include targeted wetland conservation and rehabilitation strategies along with ecologically sustainable mosquito control programs.

Is the detection of the virus in Sydney unusual?

The detection of Ross River virus is not that unusual. Detection of Ross River virus (as well as other mosquito-borne viruses such as Stratford virus) along the Georges River in southern Sydney is an almost annual occurrence. The local health authorities routinely issue warnings and in recent years have successfully used social media to spread their messages.

Ross River virus has also previously been detected along the Parramatta River.

While there have been confirmed local clusters of locally acquired Ross River virus in the suburbs along the Georges River, there have been no confirmed cases of Ross River virus disease in the suburbs along the Parramatta River.

There are a few reasons why more disease isn’t reported. Health authorities are active in promoting personal protection measures, sharing recommendations on insect repellent use and providing regular reminders of the health risks associated with local mosquitoes. It isn’t unreasonable to think these actions raise awareness and encourage behaviour change that reduces mosquito bites and subsequent disease.

Along the Georges River, there is clearly a higher risk of infection given the more significant wildlife populations, especially the wallabies common throughout Georges River National Park. By comparison, along the Parramatta River there are fewer bushland areas and virtually no wallabies (except for the occasional one hopping across the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Even in the wetland areas around Sydney Olympic Park, there is abundant bird life, meaning mosquitoes are probably more likely to be biting the animals than people. A study looking at the blood feeding preferences of mosquitoes in the local area found that animals were more likely to be bitten, mosquitoes actually only fed on humans about 10% of the time.

It is important that if you’re spending a lot of time outdoors in these areas, especially close to wetlands and bush land areas at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active, take measure to reduce the risk of being bitten. Cover up with long sleeved shirts and long pants and apply an insect repellent. Choose a repellent that contains either DEET (diethlytoluamide), picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Apply it to all exposed skin to ensure there is a thin even coat – a dab “here and there” doesn’t provide adequate protection. More tips here.

Also, keep in mind that just because cooler weather has arrived, the health risks associated with mosquitoes remain. That means keeping in mind that mosquitoes will be out and about just as football and netball seasons start so take along some mosquito repellent to training nights.

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Why do mosquitoes seem to bite some people more?

Back in 2015, I had an article published at The Conversation on why some people are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes than others. It is one of the most commonly asked questions I get whenever I give public talks (or friends and family are quizzing me at summer BBQs).

This article was incredibly successful and has currently been read by approximately 1.4 million people. That is a lot of people. Hopefully the science of mosquito bites has got out there and actually helped a few people stop themselves or their family being bitten by mosquitoes!

The warm weather is starting to arrive here in Australia so I am sharing this once more for those wondering why they’re always the “mosquito magnet” among their friends…

Health Check: why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more

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There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting mosquitoes.  sookie/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There’s always one in a crowd, a sort of harbinger of the oncoming mosquito onslaught: a person mosquitoes seem to target more than others. What is it about these unlucky chosen few that makes them mosquito magnets?

There are hundreds of mosquito species and they all have slightly different preferences when it comes to what or who they bite. But only females bite; they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.

Finding someone to bite

Mosquitoes are stimulated by a number of factors when seeking out a blood meal. Initially, they’re attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale. Body heat is probably important too, but once the mosquito gets closer, she will respond to the smell of a potential blood source’s skin.

Studies have suggested blood type (particularly type O), pregnancy and beer drinking all make you marginally more attractive to mosquitoes. But most of this research uses only one mosquito species. Switch to another species and the results are likely to be different.

There are up to 400 chemical compounds on human skin that could play a role in attracting (and perhaps repulsing) mosquitoes. This smelly mix, produced by bacteria living on our skin and exuded in sweat, varies from person to person and is likely to explain why there is substantial variation in how many mozzies we attract. Genetics probably plays the biggest role in this, but a little of it may be down to diet or physiology.

One of the best studied substances contained in sweat is lactic acid. Research shows it’s a key mosquito attractant, particularly for human-biting species such as Aedes aegypti. This should act as fair warning against exercising close to wetlands; a hot and sweaty body is probably the “pick of the bunch” for a hungry mosquito!

Probably the most famous study about their biting habits demonstrated that the mosquitoes that spread malaria (Anopheles gambiae) are attracted to Limburger cheese. The bacteria that gives this cheese its distinctive aroma is closely related to germs living between our toes. That explains why these mosquitoes are attracted to smelly feet.

But when another mosquito (such as Aedes aegypti) is exposed to the same cheese, the phenomenon is not repeated. This difference between mosquitoes highlights the difficulty of studying their biting behaviours. Even pathogens such as malaria may make us more attractive to mosquitoes once we’re infected.

Only females bite because they need a nutritional hit to develop eggs.
Sean McCann/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Researchers are trying to unscramble the irresistible smelly cocktails on the skins of “mosquito magnets”. But the bad news is that if you’re one of these people, there isn’t much you can do about it other than wearing insect repellents.

The good news is that you may one day help isolate a substance, or mixes of substances, that will help them find the perfect lure to use in mosquito traps. We could all then possibly say goodbye to topical insect repellents altogether.

Attraction or reaction?

Sometimes, it’s not the bite as much as the reaction that raises concerns. Think of the last time the mosquito magnets in your circle of friends started complaining about being bitten after the event where the purported mosquito feast took place. At least, they appear to have attracted more than the “bite free” people who were also at the picnic, or concert or whatever.

But just because some people didn’t react to mosquito bites, doesn’t mean they weren’t bitten. Just as we do with a range of environmental, chemical or food allergens, we all differ in our reaction to the saliva mosquitoes spit while feeding.

People who don’t react badly to mosquito bites may think they haven’t been bitten when they’ve actually been bitten as much as their itchy friends. In fact, while some people attract more mosquito bites than others, there’s unlikely to be anyone who never, ever, gets bitten.

The problem is that people who don’t react to mosquito bites may all too easily become complacent. If you’re one of them, remember that it only takes one bite to contract a mosquito-borne disease.

Finally, there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that there is something you can eat or drink that will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes. No, not even eating garlic, or swallowing vitamin B supplements.

The ConversationPerhaps if we spent as much time thinking about how to choose and use mosquito repellents as we do about why mosquitoes bite our friends and family less than us, there’d be fewer bites all around.

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Talking wetlands, wildlife and mosquitoes at the 2017 Australian Entomological Society Meeting

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I’ll be in Terrigal, on the NSW Central Coast, for the 2017 Australian Entomological Society conference and taking the opportunity to present a summary of a number of collaborative projects undertaken in recent years, from working out how surrounding landuse influences the mosquito populations in urban mangroves to how important mosquitoes are to the diet of local bats.

Together with a range of colleagues, I’ve been undertaking research into the factors driving mosquito and mosquito-borne disease risk in urban wetlands. It is a complex puzzle to solve with more than just mosquitoes determining local pest and public health risks. However, with outbreaks of mosquito-borne Ross River virus on the rise in recent years, including urban areas of Australia, there is a need to better understand the factors at play.

There is a range of factors that may increase the risk of Ross River virus, they include suitable wetlands, wildlife reservoirs of the pathogen and mosquitoes. Understanding the mosquitoes associated with urban estuarine and freshwater wetlands is critical.

Investigating the role of surrounding landuse in determining the mosquito communities of urban mangroves, we found that industrial and residential areas tended to increase abundance of mosquitoes, perhaps due to direct or indirect impacts on the health of those mangroves. We’ve found previously that mosquitoes problems are often associated with estuarine wetlands suffering poor health, perhaps this is determining the increased mosquito risk we identified? You can read more in our publication here.

Expanding the investigation to look at urban freshwater wetlands, it was found that there was a high degree of variability in local mosquito populations and that each wetland needed to be assessed with consideration to be given to site-specific characteristics. You can read more about our work investigating mosquito assemblages associated with urban water bodies in our publication here.

More research is underway in this field and my PhD student, Jayne Hanford, has already started collecting some fascinating data on wetland biodiversity and local mosquito populations.

While the focus of our studies is often prompted by concern about Ross River virus, interestingly, in recent years we’ve found considerable activity of Stratford virus. This is not currently considered a major human health concern but given how widespread it is, it raises concerns about the suitability of local wildlife, even in Western Sydney, to represent important reservoirs of mosquito-borne pathogens. You can read more about Stratford virus in our publication here.

The final piece of the puzzle is to understand the ecological role of mosquitoes. Where their potential health threats are deemed significant, how could management of mosquito populations have unintended consequences for other wildlife. What about the animals that eat mosquitoes? A number of years ago we did some research to determine the importance of mosquitoes in the diet of coastal bats. While there was no indication that mosquitoes are a critical component of their diet, they are still being snacked on and mosquito control programs need to consider any local ecological impacts.

Now, how am I going to squeeze all this into 15 minutes….

The presentation abstract is below:

What drives mosquito-borne disease risk in urban wetlands?

Webb, C. (1, 2), J. Hanford (3), S. Claflin (4), W. Crocker (5), K. Maute (5), K. French (5), L. Gonsalves (6) & D. Hochuli (3)

(1) Department of Medical Entomology, NSW Health Pathology, Westmead Hospital, NSW 2145; (2) Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW 2006; (3) School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney, Camperdown, NSW, 2006; (4) Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania, Hobart, TAS, 7000; (5) Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Medicine & Health, University of Wollongong NSW, 2522; (6) School of Arts and Sciences, Australian Catholic University, North Sydney, NSW, 2060.

Managing pest and public health risks associated with constructed and rehabilitated urban wetlands is of increasing concern for local authorities. While strategic conservation of wetlands and wildlife is required to mitigate the impacts of urbanisation and climate change, concomitant increases in mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease outbreak risk must be addressed. However, with gaps in our understanding of the ecological role of mosquitoes, could control strategies have unintended adverse impacts on vertebrate and invertebrate communities? A series of studies were undertaken in urban wetlands of greater Sydney to investigate the role of land use, wetland type and wetland aquatic biodiversity in driving the abundance and diversity of mosquito populations. A diverse range of mosquitoes, including key pest an vector species, were found in urban environments and mosquito-borne pathogens were detected in local populations, implicating local wildlife (e.g. water birds and macropods) as potential public health risk factors. Estuarine wetlands are locally important with the percentage of residential land and bushland surrounding wetlands having a negative effect on mosquito abundance and species richness while the amount of industrial land had a significant positive effect on species richness. Mosquito control in these habitats is required but insectivorous bats were identified as mosquito predators and the indirect implications of mosquito control should be considered. The aquatic biodiversity of urban freshwater wetlands influenced the species richness of local mosquito populations indicating vegetation plays an important role in determining local pest species. However, the matrix of wetland types also influences the abundance of mosquitoes in the local area. These results demonstrate the need for site-specific investigations of mosquito communities to assist local authorities develop policies for urban development and wetland rehabilitation that balance the need for conservation with reduced public health risks.

To keep up to date on what’s happening at the conference, check out the program online or follow the conversation on Twitter.