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K-State Today

August 29, 2018

Infectious disease researchers publish article confirming North American mosquito species as possible vectors for emerging disease

Submitted by Sarah Hancock

A group including five K-State researchers has published an article demonstrating that two North American mosquito species could spread Usutu virus, an emerging pathogen in Europe and Africa. The virus has killed thousands of birds in Europe and has been associated with neurologic disorders such as brain inflammation in humans.

Christian Cook, doctoral student in pathobiology; Amy Lyons, master's student in veterinary biomedical science and research assistant in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology; Yan-Jang S. Huang, research assistant professor in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology; Dana Vanlandingham, associate professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology; and Stephen Higgs, professor and director of the Biosecurity Research Institute, co-authored "North American Culex pipiens and Culex quinquefasciatus are competent vectors for Usutu virus," which was published Aug. 17 in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. All five researchers are affiliated with the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Emergence of Usutu virus has caused an estimated 15.5 percent decline in the blackbird population of Europe. Like its close relatives Japanese encephalitis and West Nile viruses, Usutu virus can be transmitted from birds to humans through mosquitoes. The K-State researchers aimed to understand whether or not a cycle might be feasible in North America.

"Because Usutu virus poses a growing public health risk in Europe, we needed to know if North American mosquitoes could spread the virus," Vanlandingham said. "We found that two common species are able to transmit the virus; however, another species that frequently feeds on people in urban environments is unlikely to contribute to transmission here."

Mosquito-borne diseases have made international news in recent years because of outbreaks of Zika virus and chikungunya, but many other diseases, although less well known, may be grabbing headlines in the future.

"Once again, research at the Biosecurity Research Institute is breaking new ground, and these unique Usutu virus studies have potentially high public health importance. As observed with the emergence of West Nile, if introduced into new areas, it is difficult to predict which mosquitoes might transmit zoonotic viruses and how animal and human health may be impacted. Having such knowledge before a virus is introduced provides the ability to plan effective control strategies," Higgs said.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency Chemical and Biological Defense Division and by the State of Kansas National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Transition Fund.