Island medics to lead nation’s fight against insect diseases
By Trishna Buch
UTMB has been given the $10 million task of saving America from a host of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, zika and dengue fever.
The Galveston Island hospital system said on Monday that the federal centers for disease control and prevention, known as CDC, has called on it to set up a unit to stop diseases carried by insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.
Apparently, the agency is concerned that the nation “is not adequately prepared to prevent these diseases from spreading and to protect at-risk populations” and instigated the award under last year’s Zika Response And Preparedness Appropriations act.
The man chosen to lead the unit, Scott Weaver, said the lack of preparation stems “from complex problems such as difficulties in controlling the aedes aegypti mosquito, the rise of [disease carriers] that are resistant to insecticides and a decrease in public health expertise and preparedness in recent years”.
Weaver, the director of UTMB’s institute for human infections and immunity, will head a team including personnel from nine other academic institutions, six local public-health agencies and Texas’ health services department at the unit, to be known as Western Gulf Center Of Excellence For Vector-Borne Diseases.
Vector-borne diseases are those transmitted by the bite of infected cold-blooded arthropod species such as blackflies, mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks and triatomine bugs, which are sensitive to climate conditions such as those on the Gulf Coast.
The species are referred to as vectors by the medical profession because they do not cause disease themselves but spread infection by conveying pathogens from one host body to another.
UTMB said Texas is especially vulnerable to such diseases because of the state’s climate, proximity to the United States-Mexico border and the fact that it holds major hubs for travel from Latin America and
Weaver said: “Texas is a gateway for vector-borne diseases entering or emerging in the USA. We have seen dangerous viruses spread by arthropod vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks, including dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus and zika, establishing themselves and spreading, especially in the Gulf Coast region.”
Weaver said he believed UTMB had been chosen for the task because of its “unparalleled expertise in arthropod-borne diseases” and that the center of excellence will enable the institution “to improve lives all across the Americas”.
He said the center will approach its work “from many different angles, including safe and reliable control of mosquitoes while safeguarding against insecticide resistance”.
It will also look at ways to speed up diagnosis of the diseases and make it more reliable and improve both the ability to predict disease emergence and spread and methods of dealing with communities affected by insect-borne diseases.
“The goal of the center is to greatly improve our ability to anticipate mosquito and tick-borne diseases,” he said.
“The center will enhance both the regional and national capacity to anticipate, prevent and control emerging and exotic vector-borne diseases”.
UTMB’s academic partners in the project will be UT’s Austin, El Paso and Rio Grande Valley campuses, Texas A&M’s AgriLife and AgriLife Extension services and its engineering experiment station, University Of Houston, University Of Colorado and Vanderbilt University.
Initially, Harris County was the only local-government entity UTMB named among the six public-health agencies it said will contribute to the project’s team. However, after its print edition went to press, The Post was able to establish that the agencies of Cameron, Dallas and Hidalgo counties and of Brownsville and McAllen will also be involved.