The Case of the Missing Insect Scientists: The Worldwide Shortage of Medical Entomologists

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but humans don’t rule the world; insects do. There are about 1.4 billion insects for every person. By virtue of their sheer numbers, insects and other arthropods have an incredible influence on society, especially on human health. Most insects are beneficial, necessary even, but there are some like the malaria-spreading anopheline mosquito that are downright dangerous.  

We share our world with all manner of crawling, flying and, worst of all, biting insects that carry and spread disease. With so many insect vectors, we must rely on medical entomologists to prevent and mitigate the spread of Lyme disease, West Nile virus and other vector-borne diseases. Unfortunately, as vectors are posing an increasing threat and medical entomologists are needed more than ever, the world is running out of these indispensable scientists.  

What happened to all the medical entomologists, and why isn’t there nearly enough interest in this growing field? Let’s find out.  

Medical Entomologists Are in Short Supply (and High Demand) 

There simply aren’t enough up-and-coming professionals to replace older generations of medical entomologists. “As professors have retired, they have been replaced with people who don’t have the practical field and control experience or even interest,” said CDC medical entomologist Janet McAllister. This leaves the field in desperate need of young professionals with a passion for public health.  

Limited Courses 

Students interested in pursuing an entomology career may not have access to the proper training. Mapping of entomology courses in 2016 revealed that most courses are only offered on-site in North America, specifically the U.S., to the detriment of low-and middle-income countries hit hardest by vector-borne diseases.  

Online Entomology Programs 

Fortunately, online entomology programs are available for professionals interested in gaining the knowledge and skills needed to protect people from mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and other insect vectors for disease. Entomology programs like those offered by the University of Florida are entirely online and flexible enough to accommodate the schedules of international students, regardless of their time zone. There’s perhaps no better option for students interested in addressing vector-borne diseases in their country.  

Lack of Interest 

Students who do pursue academic- or research-based careers tend to take a broad course of study to qualify for a wide range of careers, rather than specializing in a specific subject like medical entomology that could help them land their dream job.  

“We need people who can go out in a village, town or jungle and figure out what a disease is, where is it coming from, what’s the host, what’s the vector, and what the heck can we do about it,” medical entomologist Jerome Goddard told Time magazine. “There are hardly any of these people.” Without a new generation of medical entomologists, the world is left to fend for itself against insects that can spread illness and disease with a single bite.  

We Need Medical Entomologists Now More Than Ever 

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that vector-borne diseases are responsible for over 700,000 deaths annually. Malaria alone results in over 400,000 deaths every year, with the majority of deaths occurring in young children. Hundreds of millions of people are affected by vector-borne diseases every year. If these numbers seem startling, brace yourself — they could very well get worse.  

Contributing Factors to the Spread of Vectors 

International travel and urbanization are leading to an increasing number of vector-borne disease outbreaks in new countries. The 2015 Zika outbreak in the U.S., for example, began when infected travelers returned from Zika-affected countries. It’s climate change, however, that may be the most concerning contributing factor to the spread of vectors.  

Global temperatures have risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the preindustrial era. That might not seem like much, but insects are cold-blooded and thrive in warm weather. As temperatures rise, vectors will increasingly cozy up to previously inhospitable regions. We’re already seeing this in North America, where the Asian tiger mosquito, a vector for dengue and other diseases, threatens to move northward into Canada from the United States. In Europe, European wood ticks (Ixodes ricinus), a vector for Lyme disease, are becoming more comfortable in colder regions and higher altitudes. 

Insect vectors, and the diseases they carry, will continue to trek into countries and regions without the public health capacities needed to combat them. Without medical entomologists to study vectors and mitigate outbreaks, the insects and arthropods we share our world with will take an ever-increasing toll on human life. 

Study Entomology at the University of Florida  

Interested in making a difference in the lives of those most affected by vector-borne diseases? The University of Florida’s online entomology program may be is right for you. Ranked the number-one entomology program in the world according to the Center for World University Rankings, our program welcomes domestic and international students with a passion for insect science and its influence on nature, agriculture and human health. 

The University of Florida offers a medical entomology master’s degree and graduate certificate designed for students interested in learning how to apply the principles and practices of integrated pest management (IPM) in the public sector. Courses are entirely online, allowing students from all over the world to participate, and include: 

Specialization options in landscape pest management and urban pest management are also available. Regardless of your chosen specialization, you’ll gain foundational knowledge of entomology, insect classification and ecological concepts as part of one of the largest entomology departments in the world. No other university offers an experience quite like the one you’ll have as an online student at the University of Florida.  

Explore our online programs to learn more about what the University of Florida has to offer, or apply now if you’re ready to devote your life to the study of insects and vector-borne diseases.  

Sources: 
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1471492217301344
https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/vector-borne-diseases-2/assessment
https://www.cpha.ca/climate-change-and-vector-borne-illness

Learn More About the Program

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