December 11, 2018  

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Impacts of New Mosquito-Borne Diseases in Puerto Rico Focus of Research Project

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In the last three years, Puerto Rico has experienced massive outbreaks of two newly discovered mosquito-borne diseases, causing devastating effects for Puerto Rican citizens. Mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, for example, can have a wide range of negative effects on pregnancies, causing higher rates of miscarriages and birth defects in developing fetuses.

Zika can also cause neurological complications and defects in the brain, eyes, and ears of developing infants. Despite chronic outbreaks of mosquito-related illnesses year after year in Puerto Rico, there has not been a survey of the species of mosquitoes on the island for more than 80 years, the last one having been completed in 1936. With the emergence of new diseases like Zika and chikungunya, it is vital that the mosquito species be identified in order to reduce their populations and discover why these diseases are developing in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Donald Yee, associate professor of biological sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), is working to crowdfund a project with two of his graduate students, who will travel to Puerto Rico and spend 20 days collecting samples of local mosquitoes and mosquito larva in 27 locations across the island to gather samples from each biome or type of environment where the mosquitos may live.

The identification of the mosquito species on the island will be the first step in controlling the mosquito populations and reducing the diseases that they spread to Puerto Rican citizens and tourists. Different species of mosquitoes are capable of carrying different parasites and diseases, and different varieties of mosquito larva are found in different habitats. Some varieties will incubate in open water and can be controlled with larvicides, while others develop in small bodies of water that collect in abandoned tires and other refuse which must be disposed of or kept empty of water. By identifying which species are present on the island and where they live, the mosquito populations can be controlled more effectively.

Insect populations and ranges are constantly impacted by environmental changes and travel, which can lead to an explosion in populations and a widening of the locations where the insects can be found, making it vital that the survey be conducted. The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017 may have led various mosquito ranges to shift, expand, or contract, meaning that various mosquito-borne diseases may emerge in areas of Puerto Rico that were less affected by these diseases in the past. Dr. Yee’s research represents an important effort in reducing the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses.

Dr. Yee joined the USM faculty in 2008. His primary area of expertise is the community and population ecology of aquatic insects. He has spent more than a dozen years researching mosquito ecology, and the results of his research have been published in numerous journals, including the Journal of Medical Entomology and Annals of the Entomological Society of America. Cumulatively, Dr. Yee has lived in Puerto Rico for more than a year as both a student and faculty member, so his familiarity with the island will serve to expedite this research project. 

More information about Dr. Yee’s project can be found on the crowdfunding website: http://experiment.com/projects/the-mosquitoes-of-puerto-rico, and Dr. Yee can be contacted directly at Donald.Yee@usm.edu.