How Does Entomology Relate to Public Health?

Public health initiatives include efforts to warn people of the dangers of smoking, heart disease and obesity. In many cases, simply informing the public of a problem is enough to mitigate it. However, not all problems can be solved with a persuasive pamphlet. Transmitted by insects, some of the world’s most infectious diseases can spread rapidly from one person to another. It’s only when cases start trickling in that the first signs of an outbreak emerge. Who do local, state and federal governments rely on when playing a game of catch-up against a vector-borne disease infecting hundreds, if not thousands, of people?  

Medical entomologists may not be medical doctors, but their work in public health can nonetheless save lives. As we look at the overlap between entomology and public health, consider that the world is in desperate need of pest management professionals able to survey and prevent vector-borne diseases. Without expertly trained, passionately curious entomologists, the public health field would be unequipped to handle some of the greatest threats to our nation’s health.   

Entomology and Public Health  

Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, a key figure in the development of modern public health, defined public health as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.” Considering that 17% of all infectious diseases are caused by insects and other arthropods, it’s no wonder entomologists are called upon to uphold these defining aspects of public health.  

Medical Entomology  

Medical entomologists, also known as public health entomologists, are dedicated to ensuring that our nation is no longer threatened by vector-borne diseases. As part of a national public health framework for vector-borne disease prevention and control, medical entomologists have prioritized the following goals:  

  • Understanding people’s exposure to vector-borne diseases; 
  • Developing tools for diagnosis and detection of vector-borne diseases; 
  • Developing tools for prevention and control of vector-borne diseases; 
  • Developing drugs and treatments for vector-borne diseases; 
  • Disseminating public health initiatives addressing vector-borne disease threats. 

Preventing and controlling vector-borne diseases like West Nile virus isn’t the job of a single medical entomologist — or even a single government agency, for that matter. Surveying threats and preventing outbreaks takes a coordinated effort on the part of a multidisciplinary set of stakeholders, including governments, health departments, vector control agencies, healthcare providers, academic partners, nonprofit organizations, and entomological professionals. Every part of this network plays a specific and crucial role in tackling the complex problems that mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and other blood-feeding insects present, especially since the number of disease cases from these insects has tripled since the early 2000s.  

How Entomologists are Addressing the Most Pressing Public Health Concerns  

Vector-borne threats are unique among public health threats; however, public health professionals employ the same approach when addressing vector-borne threats as they do other public health concerns. The public health approach entails recognizing and responding to a problem and is comprised of four steps. Let’s see how the public health approach was used to predict and mitigate an outbreak of West Nile virus, the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States and Canada.  

1. What Is the Problem?  

In August 2017, when researchers noticed signs of an impending West Nile virus epidemic in Ontario, Canada, the problem was only identified because mosquito surveillance programs were already in place. By studying climate data, past human cases, and trapped West Nile-positive mosquitoes, researchers were able to predict that hundreds of people were at risk of contracting this disease, which results in meningitis, encephalitis and acute flaccid paralysis, in rare cases.  

2. What Is the Cause?  

With the problem known, the next step was to identify its cause as well as those who are most at risk. Out of the 67 species of mosquitoes in Ontario, Culex mosquitoes are most likely to spread West Nile virus. These mosquitoes thrive in urban environments where standing water is widespread, so researchers knew exactly where groups of Culex mosquitoes were most likely to be and who they were most likely to target. Moreover, Culex mosquitoes feed primarily on birds, including crows, magpies and ravens. With these birds flying south for the winter, mosquitoes switching to humans for a bite to eat, and warm and humid weather contributing to mosquito and virus development, researchers had their cause.  

3. What Works?  

When solving a problem, public health professionals often look to what’s worked in the past. By staying indoors, applying bug repellent, wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and clearing standing water, Ontario residents could lower their risk of being bitten by a West-Nile-virus-positive mosquito. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get people to care about mosquito-borne illnesses late in the summer when mosquitoes are less of a problem. Nevertheless, researchers knew they had to persuade the public to protect themselves against the dangers of West Nile virus.   

4. How Do You Do It?  

Many public health problems can only be solved by large-scale initiatives, such as the widespread use of aerial insecticides here in the U.S. In this case, however, all researchers had to do was publish their findings. Local news picked up on “one of the largest West Nile virus outbreaks in fifteen years,” and the public was adequately notified of the impending epidemic. Ultimately, reported cases of West Nile virus ended up being half that of predicted cases, thanks in part to the surveillance efforts of medical entomologists.  

Save Lives as an Entomologist  

Entomologists are essential for ensuring the health of the public. You may not find them in an operating room, and they may study insect biology instead of human anatomy, but medical entomologists are as dedicated to preventing disease and saving lives as anyone in public health. Without their expertise, our nation would be ill-equipped to combat diseases like West Nile virus, dengue, Zika, Lyme and plague — diseases that affect tens of thousands of Americans every year.  

The University of Florida offers an online entomology and nematology master’s degree and graduate certificate, each with three specialization options, one of which is medical entomology. Courses like Principles of Urban Pest Management, Ecology of Vector-Borne Diseases and Advanced Medical and Veterinary Entomology can prepare you for a fulfilling career researching, preventing and controlling vector-borne diseases. Become a medical entomologist and turn your love of insects into a lifesaving career in public health.  


Learn More About the Program

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