UW-Madison students lending a hand in Texas

Two UW-Madison students are helping to control an issue plaguing cleanup crews in southeastern Texas: a post-floodwater mosquito boom.

Hurricane Harvey dumped on parts of Texas for up to nine days, leaving standing water that acts as a breeding ground for the blood-sucking pest.

Melissa Farquhar and Erin McGlynn have flown to Texas to monitor for mosquitoes that could spread harmful diseases and to analyze the effectiveness of ongoing control efforts. The two have been temporarily hired by Clarke, a mosquito control company contracted by Texas to mitigate the problem.

Farquhar, a veterinary medicine student from San Jose, Calif., and McGlynn, a medical and master’s in public health student from Wisconsin Rapids, are part of the new Upper Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases at UW-Madison.

Illinois-based Clarke, a partner in the vector-borne disease center, reached out to center co-directors Susan Paskewitz and Lyric Bartholomay to get student backup for the company’s overwhelmed employees. The two students will be in Houston until Sept. 21.

Flooding from Harvey has led to a dramatically increased level of mosquitoes; traps that normally catch 10 to 20 in a night are now netting thousands nightly. Farquhar and McGlynn are working out of Clarke’s mobile lab, identifying mosquitoes brought in by the company’s trappers.

“The problem in Texas is not a disease situation at this point, but it is an enormous output of nuisance mosquitoes. And those mosquitoes are very serious, because they prevent people from doing the cleanup work that needs to be done,” says Paskewitz, a UW–Madison professor of entomology.

These particular species of mosquitoes being tested do not normally spread diseases like Zika and West Nile virus, but it’s possible that some trapped mosquitoes would fall into the more dangerous category. All trapped subjects are identified and reported to health authorities to try and keep tabs on disease-spreading varieties.

Farquhar, who has studied vector-borne disease at UW-Madison’s Arboretum, called it a “unique experience” to see how companies like Clarke handle disaster situations.

And McGlynn, who has studied entomology and disaster preparedness as part of her graduate work, says “I think we were both surprised how little overlap there was in mosquito species between Wisconsin and Texas.”

The vector-borne disease center’s work is supported by $10 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think this [partnership] really fulfills the mandate of the CDC, because part of the CDC award that the Midwest center received is to provide hands on, real-world training for vector biologists,” says Rajeev Vaidyanathan, Clarke’s director of environmental science.

–By Alex Moe