Why has mosquito-borne disease hit Tasmania?

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Are there even mosquitoes in Tasmania?

You could be forgiven thinking that Australia’s southern most state, Tasmania, is probably free of mosquitoes and certainly the chances of an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease would be rare. Is it even possible?

Health authorities in Tasmania have recently warned residents and visitors to avoid mosquito bites following reports of locally acquired infections of Barmah Forest virus.

Ross River virus may be the best known of Australia’s local mosquito-borne pathogens but Barmah Forest isn’t far behind. Infection can cause an illness similar to Ross River virus disease, its typically marked by joint pain and inflammation, fatigue, rash, headaches, muscle pain, fever and chills.

Fortunately the disease is not fatal.

There have been outbreaks of Barmah Forest virus in many parts of Australia, not just in the tropical north. Significant outbreaks have occurred in NSW and southern Western Australia.

While Tasmania may be cold, that doesn’t mean there aren’t mosquito problems. There is a range of mosquitoes found in Tasmania, including Aedes camptorhynchus, a key species of pest and public health concern. This mosquito is closely associated with coastal estuarine wetlands, especially saltmarsh environments.

Tasmania has also had outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. More than 100 people were infected with Ross River virus in the coastal region just to the east of Hobart in 2002. Specimens of Aedes camptorhynchus collected in the region tested positive to the virus making transmission risk most likely influenced by an abundance of this mosquito.

Like Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus is spread by mosquitoes to people from local wildlife. It is likely that the virus quietly circulates between native animals, such as birds and mammals, but when favorable conditions for mosquitoes occur and populations increase, the risks of transmission to people increase.

While there is only a hand full of cases confirmed to date, a total of five with an additional two to be confirmed, it may not seem significant. However, it is a reminder that wherever mosquitoes, wetlands, and wildlife occur, there can also be a risk of mosquito-borne disease transmission.

With a warmer Tasmania possibly resulting from climate change and a concomitant extension of the “mosquito season” in coming years, perhaps the public health risks associated with mosquitoes will be something for health authorities to keep a closer eye on in the future. Importantly, is it time for local authorities to proactively monitor mosquitoes and the activity of mosquito-borne pathogens?

The image used at the top of this post comes from John Tann via Flickr; a mosquito (possibly Aedes alboannulatus) from Strahan, Tasmania.

Find out more about the amazing mosquitoes of Australia by picking up a copy of the award winning “A Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” from CSIRO Publishing.

 

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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Wetlands, climate change, and managing mosquitoes

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I’ve spent over twenty years sloshing about in wetlands around Sydney and surrounds. They’re changing. They’re changing due to shifts in climate, sea level rise, and urbanisation. The 2019 World Wetlands Day is a time to stop and reflect on the state of wetlands around the world and how we can keep them health under the threat of climate change.

World Wetlands Day is held every year on 2 February,  this day marking the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The theme of the 2019 World Wetlands Day is “Wetlands and Climate Change” and we shouldn’t just think about the impact of climate change on wetlands but also how wetlands can help us as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

Coastal wetlands around Sydney are impacted in many ways. Mangrove forests and saltmarshes are degraded through direct and indirect human activity. There is recent research indicating that sea level rise is impacting mangroves along the Parramatta River in Sydney. This requires active management to ensure substantial degradation and die back occurs, as has been seen elsewhere in Australia.

Some of our research even suggests that degraded mangroves are more productive when it comes to mosquitoes. Effective rehabilitation of these habitats may actually reduce the mosquitoes flying out of these environments and impacting the community nearby. Similarly, urban planning should consider the risk posed by mosquitoes in wetlands adjacent to new and expanding residential developments. This includes major wetland rehabilitation projects.

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The challenges facing wetlands isn’t unique to Australia. Released in conjunction with World Wetlands Day preparations was The Global Wetland Outlook. A document that provides “a current overview of global wetlands: their extent, trends, drivers of change and the responses needed to reverse the historical decline in wetland area and quality”.

While we think of rainforests and coral reefs under greatest threat, it is a sobering thought to think that up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. These are environments that were, until relatively recently, considered wastelands. With this lack of perceived value came greater susceptibility to abuse and degradation.

Along with the unsurprising loss of wetland area and decline in biodiversity associated with these environments come some interesting findings. The most interesting from a mosquito management point of view is that artificial wetlands are actually increasing in some areas. Notwithstanding an assessment of the ecosystem services they provide, they’re more likely to be closer to human habitation, so any mosquitoes associated with them may have relatively greater impact.

In recent years, the value of wetlands has increased. There is an understanding now that these environments provide critical ecosystem services. There is also a growing understanding of the wetland’s roles in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Coastal wetlands in particularly provide protection from increasingly severe storm events and trap valuable carbon stores that assist in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

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This then raises the issues of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are a natural part of wetland ecosystems. While often their pest impacts may indicate the poor health of the wetlands, at other time, abundant mosquito populations are a natural occurrence that fluctuate in their intensity from year to year. How do best manage mosquitoes associated with these wetlands?

I’ve written about how I think mosquito control should actually be considered an important component of coastal wetland rehabilitation. How climate change may be impacting mosquito threats and that even hot and dry summers under the influence of El Nino may not necessarily mean that mosquitoes are less problematic.

Based on the experience during the 2018-2019 summer, mosquitoes seem to persist in plague proportions despite the extreme temperatures being experienced in NSW.

It is important to remember that there are many mosquito species associated with wetlands, especially freshwater habitats, that pose no substantial threat to humans. There are hundreds of mosquitoes in Australia, less than a dozen really pose a substantial pest or public health threat. Many mosquitoes may play an important ecological role in wetland ecosystems. This may include representing a locally important food source for insectivorous wildlife or possibly pollinating plants.

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A balance is required. If we’re going to continue squeezing an increasing human population into a narrow stretch of land up against the coast, there are many issues to consider here and they’re not just about how human activity is impacting those coastal wetlands. Pollution is a problem, our physical damage is another. Worst still, we’re taking away the opportunity of these normally resilient habitats to adapt to a rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storm events. Our cities and their infrastructure provide a hard and unforgiving edge against the wetlands.

Our wetlands even battle against themselves sometime. The threat of mangrove incursion into saltmarsh habitats is of increasing concern. Its counter-intuitive but perhaps we need to be pulling out mangroves to save some coastal wetlands.

Expanding, modifying, and creating new coastal wetlands will require local authorities to turn their mind to the issue of mosquitoes. Firstly, consideration needs to be given to what may constitute a tolerable level of mosquito exposure. How many mosquito bites are too many? How many cases of mosquito-borne disease are considered “normal” each year. Once these thresholds are drawn and exceeded, who is responsible for the decisions on active mosquito control? Who pays?

Another ecosystem disservice to consider is how the nuisance-biting of mosquitoes may discourage engagement with local wetlands. less engagement may mean less support for conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Less community interest, support, and activism may then result is less political drive to protect local wetlands by local authorities.

Importantly, decisions regarding the management of coastal wetlands, as well as those peppered throughout the city, need to be made with some consideration of mosquitoes and their potential impact. How do you convince the local community about the overall benefits of carbon sequestration, wildlife conservation, and protection of infrastructure is worthwhile if their quality of life is degraded through summer swarms and nuisance-biting mosquitoes?

More details on managing the risks associated with estuarine mosquitoes is provided in this book chapter included in the free Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s guide to managing urban wetlands.

For more about World Wetlands Day activities in Australia see here.

To stay up to date with my adventures in local wetlands, you can follow me on Instagram here.

 

 

 

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.

 

A manual for managing urban wetlands

Webb_Mangroves2The protection and rehabilitation of urban wetlands is critical. They are under threat from urbanisation and a changing climate climate but perhaps the greatest risk is disengagement from the community with many not really know the true value of our wetlands.

I have had a long and productive working relationship with the Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA). One of the most enjoyable activities has been serving as a member of the Wetlands Education and Training (WET) Program Advisory Panel. A small group of wetland scientists assist SOPA develop and coordinate workshops for scientists, managers, policy makers and teachers. The program has been in place since 2002 and over 30 workshops have been held since then. There have two very successful “managing mosquitoes” workshops in recent years with the next scheduled for 2015 (keep your eyes out for that one)

After ten years of working with a diverse range of professionals, it was decided that the collected wisdom of those groups and individuals should be brought together in the form of a resource for those managing urban wetlands. In particular, it would draw on many of the experiences within the wetland of Sydney Olympic Park.

WetlandsManualThe “WET eBook: Workbook for Managing Urban Wetlands in Australia” was launched on Thursday 28 November 2013 in conjunction with a two-day workshop on constructed wetlands management. The eBook was officially launched by Michael Knight, Chair of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority. Michael is well connected to the Sydney Olympics, serving as Minister for the Olympics between 1995 and 2001 in NSW, and it could be argued that, without the hosting of the 200 Olympics, many of the current wetlands around the area may not exist today.

I’ve contributed three chapters to the eBook. They can be downloaded individually but don’t just stick to the mozzies, there is lots more valuable information contained within the 400 or so pages. A wide range of topics, across broad topic areas of estuarine wetlands, freshwater wetlands, monitoring, developing a plan of management, are covered and a concluding section brings everything together. In fact, I was given the opportunity to be lead author on the final chapter, identifying and bringing together many of the challenges faced by urban wetlands and mapping out a way forward for wetland conservation.

My chapters and direct links to the individual PDFs are below.

Webb C.E. (2013) Managing mosquitoes in constructed freshwater wetlands. ‘Workbook for managing urban wetlands in Australia’ (Ed. S. Paul) 1st edn. (Sydney Olympic Park Authority) ISBN 978-0-9874020-0-4

Webb C.E. (2013) Managing mosquitoes in coastal wetlands. ‘Workbook for managing urban wetlands in Australia’ (Ed. S. Paul) 1st edn. (Sydney Olympic Park Authority) ISBN 978-0-9874020-0-4

Webb C.E. et al. (2013) Facing the challenges of managing urban wetlands in Australia: the way forward. ‘Workbook for managing urban wetlands in Australia’ (Ed. S. Paul) 1st edn. (Sydney Olympic Park Authority) ISBN 978-0-9874020-0-4