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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Taking Australian wetland research to China

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My PhD student Jayne Hanford has been super busy this year. Not much more than a year into her candidature and she has already locked away a summer of research and has been presenting her findings at conferences here in Australia as well as overseas.

After recently sharing our research at the Society for Wetland Scientists Annual Conference held in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA and the Mosquito Control Association of Australia conference on the Gold Coast, Jayne is off to China for the 10th INTECOL International Wetlands Conference.

Her research is focused on understanding the links between wetland vegetation, aquatic biodiversity and mosquito populations. Better understanding of these links will assist management strategies that minimise actual and potential pest and public health risks associated with mosquitoes and urban wetlands.

Our abstract for the conference is below:

Is the Biodiversity Value of Constructed Wetlands Linked to their Potential Mosquito-Related Public Health Risks?

Jayne Hanford1, Cameron Webb2, Dieter Hochuli1

1School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia; 2Department of Medical Entomology, Westmead Hospital and The University of Sydney, Westmead, Australia

 Stormwater treatment wetlands constructed in cities can enhance the sustainability of urban biodiversity by providing wildlife refuge areas and habitat connectivity. However, the creation of wetlands for stormwater infrastructure can increase risks to public health and wellbeing by proliferating nuisance-biting and pathogen-transmitting mosquitoes. In severe cases, this proliferation can erode goodwill in the community for creating and protecting valuable wetland systems.  We compared mosquito assemblages at 24 natural and constructed urban wetlands in the greater Sydney region, Australia. Our aim was to determine if stormwater wetlands constructed with the goal to support high biodiversity value also had reduced associated mosquito risks. Wetlands were located across a gradient of urbanisation determined by surrounding human population density, and included sites with different aquatic and riparian habitat complexity and availability. Adult and larval mosquitoes and aquatic macroinvertebrates were sampled on two occasions through summer and autumn. Aquatic macroinvertebrates were used to derive health indices, as well as being a relative measure of aquatic diversity.  Diversity of adult mosquito species was high, and abundance varied greatly between wetlands. Macroinvertebrate assemblages were also highly variable between sites. Wetlands with greater habitat complexity had lower adult mosquito abundance and greater mosquito species diversity, compared to stormwater-specific wetlands with minimal available habitat. As expected, mosquito assemblages did not respond to urbanisation and aquatic macroinvertebrate assemblages per se, but appeared to respond to a complex suite of coarse and fine-scale features that may affect a wetland’s biodiversity value.  Effectively integrating wetlands into cities requires balancing their design for water infrastructure purposes, biodiversity resources and public health and wellbeing requirements. Understanding the risks as well as the benefits will enhance the value of constructed urban wetlands in sustainable cities while minimising public health risks posed by mosquitoes.

Jayne will be speaking in the “The next generation of wetland science: ecosystems, applications, and engineering” session in the Nanhu Room 1520-1530 on Wednesday 21 September.

You can keep an eye on whats happening in China by following Jayne on Twitter and checking the hashtag

westernsydneywetlands

The Society for Wetland Scientists Annual Conference held in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA back in May included a paper by Jayne titled “Risky Wetlands? Conflicts between biodiversity value and public health” and prompted some great feedback and discussion among wetland scientists at the meeting. It was a successful trip and a timely reminder that I must get to one of the SWS meetings sometime soon, perhaps Puerto Rico?

Keep an eye out for Jayne’s research publications soon!