Health & Environment

AgriLife Lands $10 Million CDC Grant To Fight Diseases Like Zika

January 9, 2017

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is a principal vector of the Zika virus. Photo by Gabe Hamer.

Texas A&M AgriLife recently received a substantial monetary boost to bolster its aggressive fight to stem the spread of vector-borne diseases for the public good, said Dr. David Ragsdale, Texas A&M University entomology department head at College Station.

Ragsdale said the $10 million five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be used to establish the Western Gulf Coast Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases.

The Western Gulf Coast Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases is a virtual center partnership with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston serving as the lead institution, Ragsdale said. Dr. Scott Weaver, director of the UTMB Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory, is the project director.

Dr. David Ragsdale.

“Texas A&M is involved in all aspects of the center which has three main objectives,” Ragsdale said. “They include a research program to answer specific questions about the mosquito and the viruses they transmit, an educational program to develop the next generation of vector biologists to fill positions in private industry, local, state, and national labs where vector borne-diseases are diagnosed and action plans are developed, and finally, there is an Extension education program that is targeting the public with reliable information about mosquito control and the diseases they spread.

“The Extension program will also inform cities and their staffs on how to properly conduct mosquito surveillance and control.

“The center’s task is to proactively find ways to stop the spread of vector-borne diseases,” Ragsdale said. “Texas A&M AgriLife Research and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston head the large collaboration of partners to achieve that primary mission.”

The center’s partners include public health organizations, top academic institutions and educational agencies, and internationally recognized experts in vector biology, epidemiology, ecology and vector-borne diseases, Ragsdale said.

Along with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, those experts hail from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, University of Houston, Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas at El Paso. There are also experts from six public health agencies and the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ragsdale said Texas, especially the Rio Grande Valley, is the ideal region for the unique effort because the U.S. – Mexico border serves as the gateway for many vector-borne diseases entering the U.S.

“Actually it is not the border as much as it is the subtropical climate that is the real issue,” Ragsdale said. “The border is less of an issue except it’s true there are a lot of travel-related disease cases in this part of Texas and too, the right mosquito is there to cause local transmission problems. But regardless, this new center is meant to enhance both the regional and national capacity to anticipate, prevent and control emerging and exotic vector-borne disease.”

Ragsdale said destructive viruses spread by mosquitoes and tick vectors – including dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus, Zika and a host of others – have a history of arriving, spreading or re-emerging in the U.S.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. has had little success in protecting vulnerable populations and preventing these vector-borne diseases from spreading, he said.

“Failures stem from a variety of problems,” Ragsdale said. “But two of the main issues are the difficulties in controlling the A. aegypti mosquito, the main culprit in the spread of many of these diseases, and the decline in public health preparedness in recent decades.”

To remedy the ever-growing situation, the newly acquired funds will be used to:

  •  Support applied research to create new methods of vector and disease control.
  • Translate scientific advances into real-world tools for the benefit of the public.
  • Facilitate communication and collaboration among academic institutions, public health agencies, federal institutions and communities vital in controlling vector-borne diseases.
  • Create an ongoing feedback loop between community needs and translational research results.
  • Train the next generation of leaders in public health entomology.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a fluid interchange among applied research, communities of practice, and student and in-service education,” Ragsdale said. “By doing so, the Western Gulf Coast Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases will produce greatly improved methods and capacity to respond to mosquito and tick-borne diseases.

“The improved predictive, surveillance and control methods, including the training of entomologists and the strengthening of public health partnerships, will have lasting impacts on the control of vector-borne diseases and human health now and into the future.”

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