Photo: Yasmin Guzman of Bainbridge, Georgia, left, joined the Mosquito Surveillance Program team in August 2019 as a mosquito-identifying technician and is currently director of operations in the on-campus lab. She plans to continue working in a research lab after earning her Bachelor of Science in Biology and Minor in Chemistry in December, before applying to medical school.
VALDOSTA – A group of VSU student researchers are working to create new knowledge and potentially save lives with the Mosquito Surveillance Program.
A group of student researchers from Valdosta State University has spent the past five months working to create new knowledge and potentially save lives. Their efforts will continue throughout the fall as they seek to support public health initiatives to protect area residents from mosquito-borne diseases.
More than two decades ago, VSU, the City of Valdosta, Lowndes County, and the South Health District of the Georgia Department of Public Health established a joint Mosquito Surveillance Program. It works by providing data on vector and virus activity to local, state, national and international health agencies and researchers so that precautions can be taken to prevent the transmission of diseases from mosquitoes to humans and animals.
Led by Dr. Mark Blackmore, a professor in the Department of Biology at VSU, the student researchers collect mosquitoes using traps placed in strategically located permanent sampling areas in Valdosta and Lowndes County. Traps are placed in the afternoon and the next morning the mosquitoes are collected and taken to the Mosquito Surveillance Program lab on the second floor of VSU’s Hugh C. Bailey Science Center. This happens several times a week.
“We usually collect from March to November, but for the past two years we’ve collected some during the winter months to better understand the biology of the species involved in West Nile virus transmission,” Blackmore said.
In the VSU lab, the mosquitoes are anesthetized to prevent movement. The student researchers look at them under a microscope and divide them into groups based on species.
Blackmore said there are about three dozen species of mosquitoes in the Valdosta-Lowndes County area.
The mosquitoes are then packaged and shipped to the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where they are tested for mosquito-borne diseases.
The Mosquito Surveillance Program confirmed the first West Nile Virus activity of the year in the area in late June. The first Eastern Equine Encephalitis activity of the year was noted in mid-May.
The Mosquito Surveillance Program is the first program of its kind in the region and one of the first in the state. Because the sampling locations never change, Blackmore said his research team is able to compare data from year to year and help guide public health initiatives — including mosquito control efforts — designed to improve health and safety in Valdosta and Lowndes. County to promote.
“Every year brings a new set of challenges and something new in what we learn about mosquito-borne diseases in this area,” he added. “Different weather patterns, drought or flooding have a major impact on mosquito populations and are constantly changing. We documented the arrival of two new mosquito species as they expanded their distribution in the Southeast. We have documented the absence of one of the worst species – yellow fever mosquito – that was once in Valdosta, but is now absent. Our data is used by state, national and even international researchers who monitor mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.”
Through this experiential learning opportunity, Blackmore’s students acquire a number of important skills, such as data entry and data analysis. They learn how to identify mosquitoes to species and the techniques needed to prepare them for virus testing. He said the research skills they learn in his lab contribute to their ability to access advanced training in medical and research programs across the country.
Chloe Brevaldo, a nursing major from St. George, Georgia, joined the Mosquito Surveillance Program in October 2020. She described the experience as “unique and educational.”
Brevaldo shared how she enjoys sorting the mosquitoes and seeing what they look like under the microscope. “To be fair, some of the different varieties even look nice when enlarged,” she explains. She said the research team hopes their work contributes to efforts at home and abroad to learn more about mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus.
The Mosquito Surveillance Program has inspired several VSU students to continue their education in biology, including a Blazer alumnus who received his PhD while studying the Zika virus before joining the Florida Department of Health and another alum who is currently pursuing a PhD and studying mosquitoes at the University of Georgia. Others have moved on to careers as doctors or veterinarians, Blackmore said.
Yasmin Guzman of Bainbridge, Georgia, plans to continue working in a research lab after earning her Bachelor of Science in Biology and Minor in Chemistry in December before applying to medical school. She joined the Mosquito Surveillance Program team in August 2019 as a mosquito identification technician and is currently director of operations in the on-campus lab.
“My favorite part of the job is interacting with others,” she said. “I have met many great students and staff during my time in the lab. It was a pleasure to see everyone outside the lab succeed in their goals.”
More than one million people worldwide die each year from mosquito-borne diseases, according to the American Mosquito Control Association. Mosquitoes also carry diseases that can potentially cause suffering in dogs, horses and other animals.
West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis are the two mosquito-borne diseases traditionally diagnosed each year in the Valdosta-Lowndes County area.
“If we get a positive result, it reminds us how important mosquito monitoring is to the health of both our community and our county’s wildlife,” Guzman said.
Chris Calhoun, director of environmental health for the South Health District of Public Health, emphasized that the best protection against mosquito-borne diseases is to avoid a mosquito bite.
The Georgia Department of Public Health’s South Health District, which serves a 10-county region, including Lowndes County, offered the following tips for preventing mosquito bites now through the fall:
• Use an insect repellent containing DEET, picardine, IR3535 or lemon eucalyptus oil on exposed skin and/or clothing.
• Wear long sleeves and pants whenever possible.
• Provide secure, intact screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out.
• Eliminate mosquito breeding grounds by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets, barrels, wading pools and other containers and drilling holes in tire swings.
Peak times for mosquito bites are between dusk and dawn.
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