Why the World Needs Medical Entomologists More Than Ever
Insect bites may seem like little more than an annoyance. However, for billions of people around the world, a single bite could mean contracting a debilitating and potentially deadly disease. Mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile virus, malaria and Zika affect millions of people around the world. With each passing year, the threat of diseases spread by mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other arthropods increases, while our ability to predict and prevent their spread decreases.
Medical entomologists are dedicated to eliminating vector-borne diseases by surveying and managing the insects and other arthropods that cause them — and they’re needed now more than ever. There’s just one problem: professionals with a master’s degree or graduate certificate in medical entomology are increasingly rare in the public health field. Let’s take a look at what their absence means for the billions of people around the world at risk of contracting a vector-borne disease.
The World’s Deadliest Animal
When you think of the world’s deadliest creature, do you think of a tiger stalking through the jungle or a viper slithering through the underbrush? Believe it or not, the mosquito is the world’s deadliest animal. These pervasive creatures have killed approximately 50 billion people over the course of human history.
Part of what makes mosquitoes so dangerous is their appetite for human blood. During a blood meal, bloodsucking mosquitoes ingest disease-causing microorganisms. The now infectious mosquito is then able to transmit the pathogen to new hosts with each bite. Malaria, spread by Anopheles mosquitoes, causes over 400,000 worldwide deaths alone each year. Although this deadly disease has remained a steadfast threat throughout human history, it was an outbreak of the usually non-fatal Zika virus that showed just how vulnerable the United States is when medical entomologists are in short supply.
The Zika Outbreak
Travelers from the Caribbean arrived in Miami with an unknown stowaway in 2016. One of the travelers was infected with the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus known for causing serious birth defects including fetal loss, stillbirth and preterm birth. All it took was the bite of one female mosquito to begin the spread of the virus, and thousands of cases were soon reported — not in a remote tropical region, but in our own backyard. According to Benjamin Beard, deputy director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The nation’s state of preparedness for vector-borne diseases had just been neglected and wasn’t where it needed to be.”
The U.S. was caught off guard by the Zika outbreak in part because of a decline in the number of trained medical entomologists. At the time of the outbreak, the CDC only had 11 entomologists and was forced to begin a frantic search for insect scientists able to investigate the outbreak. Five months and 1,200 cases later, the Zika outbreak was drastically reduced. The ordeal may have ended far sooner had there been more medical entomologists on hand.
More Outbreaks to Come
As frightening as the Zika outbreak may have been, the prevalence of vector-borne illnesses will only increase in the coming years. International commerce and travelers are allowing vectors and dangerous pathogens to spread to new regions. Mosquitoes continue to adapt to the sprawling urban environments where more and more people have taken up residence.
As if that wasn’t enough, climate change is also creating more favorable environments for vectors. Longer seasons and warmer conditions are allowing insects to thrive in new regions and spread disease over longer periods of time, and the U.S. is already seeing an increase in vector-borne illnesses as a result.
According to the CDC, the number of disease cases from mosquito, tick and flea bites has tripled in the U.S. from 2004 to 2016, with more than 640,000 cases reported over that time period. In addition to recent outbreaks of Zika, chikungunya and West Nile virus, the U.S. is dealing with the growing threat of Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness, and eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), a rare but often fatal mosquito-borne illness that causes swelling of the brain. Both diseases are on the rise as their vectors expand to new territories across the U.S.
A Desperate Need for Medical Entomologists
As cases continue to skyrocket, the number of entomologists trained to combat the spread of vector-borne diseases is diminishing. Despite having 12,000 employees on staff, the CDC still only employs 13 medical entomologists. According to CDC medical entomologist Janet McAllister, “As professors have retired, they have been replaced with people who don’t have the practical field and control experience or even interest.”
The lack of access to a first-rate education may have something to do with the scarcity of medical entomologists. Very few institutions offer entomology courses, let alone degree programs focused solely on medical entomology. At the University of Florida, we believe that as long as students are provided with an affordable, accessible pathway to learning, there will always be professionals interested in studying vectors and vector-borne diseases.
Join the Next Generation of Medical Entomologists
UF offers the number-one ranked entomology and nematology program in the world according to the Center for World University Rankings. Prospective students can choose to pursue either a graduate certificate or a master’s degree, each of which offers three specialization options. Both graduate paths offer entirely online classes where students learn about the principles and practices of pest management in the public health sector.
The world needs insect scientists capable of surveying emerging threats and predicting the spread of vector-borne diseases. Apply to one of UF’s online medical entomology programs and join the next generation of medical entomologists.