Science- and education-led battles against diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks have gained significant ground for public health over the past five years. 

Mosquito on human skin.
The Western Gulf Center of Excellence of Vector-Borne Diseases is spearheading efforts to protect public health from disease carrying mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. (Courtesy photo)

The world continues to encounter new vector-borne diseases and face the dangers they pose to human health. In response to that threat, research and education efforts within the U.S. are spearheaded by five centers of excellence located across the nation, including one in Texas.

These centers have laid the research and education foundation for a stronger public health infrastructure to deal with vector-borne diseases. 

Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the Department of Entomology in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences play significant roles in the effort led by the Western Gulf Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases based at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, UTMB.

The Western Gulf Center of Excellence and its four counterparts represent a $50 million, five-year grant program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed to bolster research, education and outreach efforts aimed at preventing vector-borne diseases.

The collaborating institutions were regionally designated and include the Northeast Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases at Cornell University; the Pacific-Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases at the University of California, Davis, and University of California, Riverside; the Southeastern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases at the University of Florida; and the Midwest Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases at the University of Wisconsin.

Creating entomology champions for public health

Phillip Kaufman, Ph.D., head of the Texas A&M Department of Entomology, said the goal of the centers is to build a collaborative network. The network will link the academic institution-led centers with federal, state and local public health organizations, especially vector control agencies, to monitor, prevent and respond to vector-borne diseases. The centers also conduct research to develop validated prevention and control tools and methods and to anticipate and respond to disease outbreaks.

The centers’ experts aim to provide public health entomologists with the knowledge and skills needed to address vector-borne diseases and provide regional support that would enhance prevention and response efforts related to public health. 

Kaufman said the Centers of Excellence emerged out of several noteworthy vector-borne viral disease outbreaks including chikungunya, which reached the Americas in 2012 and circulated in South Texas. The most notable was the Zika outbreak in 2015 that circled the world relatively quickly and impacted populations on all continents, including the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

A large Zika outbreak in Brazil threatened the 2016 Summer Olympics and resulted in many athletes not attending. 

The Zika epidemic stirred more concern than other vector-borne diseases because it was widespread among humans. The virus being present in utero was linked to a human birth defect, microcephaly, which reduces brain capacity in utero.

“These vector-borne viral disease outbreaks emphasized the need to invest in U.S. research and training infrastructure when it comes to vectors and the disease-causing pathogens they carry,” Kaufman said.

New emphasis on vector-borne diseases

The outbreaks exposed a shortage of scientists dedicated to investigating vector-borne diseases and their carriers. The threat to public health also revealed the need for an education and training pipeline to produce new researchers and other specialists to extend research to pest-management professionals and the public in the U.S., Kaufman said.

In response, the Western Gulf Center has built a team of entomology and public health experts intended to fill this void. UTMB acts as the program’s lead, while Texas A&M AgriLife leads all extension efforts and components of the center’s research and education programs.

But the center also collaborates with regional institutions including the University of Texas locations in Austin, Rio Grande Valley and El Paso as well as Vanderbilt University, University of Colorado, University of Houston, University of Oklahoma, New Mexico State University, University of Arkansas Monticello and public health agencies across the state including the Texas Department of State Health Services and local municipalities across Texas.

The five centers are encouraged to work collaboratively but were organized and funded based on each center’s focus on vectors that pose the most significant threat to public health in each region, Kaufman said. The Western Gulf Center investigates mosquitoes, ticks and fleas though much of the research so far has focused on vector mosquito species, which historically represent the most prevalent transmitter of pathogens regionally.

“The CDC’s and our goals were to improve our understanding of these vectors with research and applied science, but also to produce experts and specialists who bridge entomology with fields like epidemiology and public health,” Kaufman said. “The third goal was to develop programs that help train pest management professionals and the public about the best ways to control these disease-carrying species and ultimately protect public health.”

Meeting the mission with increased mosquito research in Texas

Kaufman said he believes the Centers of Excellence have laid a strong foundation for meeting the program’s collective mission.

To support the Western Gulf Center’s efforts, AgriLife Research has initiated four projects related to vector control, including improving understanding of mosquito biology, of how environmental factors like temperature can influence disease outbreaks, and of how to improve mosquito monitoring and management in neighborhoods.

These research projects include investigating outbreak incidence along the Texas-Mexico border and mosquito resistance to insecticides like permethrin. The work will provide scientific data that can be used to protect susceptible populations, impact local policy and protection plans, and strengthen control methods, Kaufman said.

“We are producing data that will help us understand how these pathogens behave in mosquito populations to ultimately pass to humans and under what conditions outbreaks are more likely,” Kaufman said. “This helps us understand the risks of an outbreak and gives us the ability to forecast transmission rates. Forecasting outbreaks will be an incredibly valuable tool for public health officials.”

Educating next-generation public health professionals, leaders

Similarly, foundational education and outreach efforts at Texas A&M University and by AgriLife Extension are transforming how scientific research protects public health, he said. Texas A&M has added certificates that augment the competence and expertise of undergraduate students enrolled in a gamut of courses including veterinary medicine, entomology and epidemiology.

For instance, the university now offers a certificate program in public health entomology that provide a broad understanding of vectors and the spread of pathogens with an emphasis on public health and policy. Coursework includes studying veterinary and medical entomology, epidemiology, pathogens and public health principles.

Internship programs were created in collaboration with public health mentors and academic center faculty cooperating within the Western Gulf Center. These internships provide research and field experience to undergraduate students and assistance to local health and human services.

“Those students are gaining invaluable experience related to their education and helping them learn how to conduct research in vector biology,” Kaufman said. “The centers have a mission in each region, and the internships are a great example of how that mission extends to our partnering institutions in Oklahoma and Arkansas.”

Parallel to the new certificate program created for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, AgriLife Extension distills and distributes the science critically relevant to public and private entities, Kaufman said. For instance, online, in-person and hybrid training platforms have provided knowledge that makes vector treatment options safer and more effective.

Kaufman said AgriLife Extension’s packaging of the most up-to-date scientific data from the collaborative centers required tremendous effort, especially amid COVID-19. However, the trainings delivered extensive knowledge to municipal and professional pest managers who are on the front lines of public health protection.

“Research, education and extension are in our charter and delivering results that protect the public is the essence of each Center’s founding mission,” Kaufman said. “The Western Gulf Center of Excellence has come a long way in these five years. We’ve created a strong foundation to expand the science, the teaching and outreach in ways that protect not only life, but the quality of life.”

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