Mosquito Tracker

Humans are bigger, faster, smarter and more powerful than mosquitoes, yet we still can’t beat them. But, Doug Watts, Ph.D., is working to try.

Illustration by Katarina Hernandez

Well ahead of monsoon season – in fact, starting well before the first of the year – Watts and his team at UTEP’s Mosquito Ecology and Surveillance Laboratory (MESL) were tracking the pesky insects’ travels around the globe due to a concern that has since become a global crisis: Zika virus.

Of immediate concern is the fact that the particular mosquito that transmits Zika (as well as dengue fever and chikungunya, another virus on the rise) is the second-most common one in El Paso.

Watts knows this species almost better than anyone. The internationally renowned researcher of mosquito-borne diseases is celebrating his fifth decade in the field and has amassed expertise in infectious disease all over the world. He began chasing down this species, Aedes aegypti, starting in 1977 in Bangkok, Thailand.

“At that time I recognized just how difficult it was to control this mosquito, to do anything to reduce the population,” he said.

Watts is keeping in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as health agencies around the Southwest. He hypothesizes that when – not if – Zika arrives in the U.S., it will first concentrate around the southern border of Texas, which offers an ideal mosquito environment.

Preventive measures are all the more necessary given that there is no vaccine for Zika.

“If mosquito control is ever going to work, the number one priority is education,” Watts said.

MESL informs mosquito control and health care professionals working to eliminate the pests and treat anyone who becomes infected with the diseases after being bitten. It also provides bilingual preventive education to elementary school children, leaving them with coloring books that inform well beyond just providing an artistic outlet. Some of these are tactics as simple as not allowing toys or tires to stay outside where water can pool and attract breeding bugs.

“We’re going to be seeing more of this as the population of humans increases,” Watts added. “It’ll be a never-ending profession to stay ahead of these crazy bugs.” -Lisa Y. Garibay