Every summer a virus that can cause lifelong neurological damage and even death comes to Colorado. The West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes who feed on infected birds, and hot spots and outbreaks are common. In 2016, there were over 2,200 human cases across the country. Eight people died in Colorado from the virus.
At the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in west Fort Collins, scientists work to combat West Nile and other vector-borne diseases, like Zika. Current CDC Director Dr. Anne Schuchat visited the lab, and spoke about their research and a surprising threat to American’s health.
What research is going on at the Vector Borne Diseases Lab in Fort Collins?
Schuchat: West Nile virus was new to the Americas in 1999 and Fort Collins did an extraordinary job getting ahead of that, really learning quickly what we needed to know about it. We know how to stop the outbreaks. We have to have surveillance, we have to have mosquito control. Every year we have quite a large number of serious cases of West Nile virus. So we do want people to use repellant and realize they are at risk even here in Colorado, and we want to continue surveillance and vector control so that we can stop the outbreaks when they start.
What is the CDC’s position on the best way to control mosquito populations?
Schuchat: The tools that we have for mosquito control are imperfect. … I know lots of women and men have questions about the environmental effects of some of these spraying methods. We think it is very important to get good data on what benefits and risks are and for communities to be engaged in those decisions. Most of the tools that we have can control the Culex mosquitoes that we have. Here in Fort Collins they have developed an assay [test] to test for insecticide resistance which can help us know locally, in your neighborhood, will the chemicals be suggested actually work.
For mosquito control, one of the challenges right now is scale -- if it’s a large geographic area our tools are more limited, and they do often involve spraying, and we want to make sure whatever we’re spraying with is safe, and that it will also be effective based on the resistance patterns.
What are some of the new research or innovations that are being developed at the Fort Collins CDC Lab?
Schuchat: The Fort Collins and Puerto Rico experts have developed some traps, that may be quite promising for mosquito control that are kind of labor intensive. There is research going on into a new, perhaps more environmentally-friendly insect repellent, and potentially insecticide called Nootkatone that investigators here have been working on. There is also really interesting research on novel methods like Wolbachia bacteria that can infect mosquitoes and make them less vulnerable to different viruses, and on genetically modified mosquitoes which are a promising tool. But we know that communities need to be ready for those innovations and we need to study if they work well.
What is the biggest threat facing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Schuchat: There are many threats to consider. … But the threat that is always present is an influenza pandemic. We know that something like Ebola or Zika or the opioid epidemic that we have in the country are very difficult, but the issue with the influenza pandemics is that they can very rapidly cause catastrophic levels of illness and death. It’s not a question of if we’ll have a pandemic of influenza, we will have more pandemics, and those really require a huge, huge response from CDC and our public health partners.