Special Report: VSU researchers battle Zika mosquitoes

Special Report: VSU researchers battle Zika mosquitoes
Researchers at VSU (WALB image)
Researchers at VSU (WALB image)
Professor Blackmore (WALB image)
Professor Blackmore (WALB image)
Kenneth Lowery (WALB image)
Kenneth Lowery (WALB image)

VALDOSTA, GA (WALB) - The summer brings around millions of mosquitoes in South Georgia, which can be extremely concerning this year with the rising threat of the Zika virus, said to cause devastating birth defects in children.

The Center for Disease Control has issued a travel alert for areas where the virus spreading. They're advising pregnant women not to go and others to take caution.

Meanwhile, a Valdosta State University science lab is leading the search against Zika right here in South Georgia.

White nets can be spotted hanging all around Valdosta and Lowndes County at night. They may not look like much, but those white nets help VSU keep track of mosquito viruses right here in our area.

"So what we're going to do today is we're going to set up two types of traps to catch mosquitoes," says VSU student Lettie Wysong.

Wysong and her classmates set up mosquito traps 3 times a week. They are set out in 14 different locations across Lowndes County and collected the next morning.  The mosquito traps are then placed into a hood with a chemical that makes the bugs sleep.

"Now they're able to be identified under the microscope without them moving around," student Jordan Linahan explains.

The nets are emptied and the mosquitoes are sorted by type and location.  "I'm sorting them out and then I will count them and put them on the data sheet," explains student Erin Parker.

"What we are basically doing is monitoring the mosquito population here to see if they have any viruses that may be of public health concern," VSU biology professor Mark Blackmore says.

The most common virus that pops up in South Georgia is West Nile. The lab also looks for other viruses too like Triple E and now Zika. The test they use will detect any viruses mosquitoes may carry.  "We test for any virus and that enables us to detect any new viruses that may be coming in," explains Blackmore.

Once sorted in Valdosta the mosquitoes are sent to another lab for the testing.  "If the Zika virus were to show up our methods would detect that," assures Blackmore.

The CDC confirmed 13 cases of Zika in Georgia, but all of them are travel related. "So we haven't had any locally transmitted infections withing our area or within the state of georgia thus far," explains Department of Public Health District Epidemiologist Kenneth Lowery.

No mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been found in the U.S. and that's why local officials say Zika shouldn't be your only concern. "I think people should be concerned about getting mosquito bites," said Blackmore.

"Zika is big in the headlines right now but there are other diseases that are related to mosquitoes. We need to be concerned with all of them," Lowery agrees.

They urge residents to empty standing water around their houses to help cut down on the mosquito population. They also say to protect yourself from mosquitoes but wearing long sleeves and mosquito repellent.

"Try to prevent breeding spots for the mosquitoes, lower the population," said Lowery, "that essentially lowers the chances of any mosquito born illness within our community."

But if new viruses do show up in South Georgia Lowndes County will know. "This is the first line of defense in terms of public health and knowledge of whether new viruses are coming in," says Blackmore, about VSU's mosquito lab.

Blackmore says peak mosquito season is just starting. The lab began collecting mosquitoes a few weeks ago and will start sending them up for testing in the next few weeks.

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