Zika Eradication and the Citizen Scientist

May 17, 2016

There’s a new wave of data collection being employed in the United States that’s cheap, easy and civic-minded: crowdsourcing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching an ambitious effort to eradicate Zika virus from its population starting with capturing data from across the country. Not by spending great sums of money to pay researchers in small pockets of high-risk areas. Instead, the Invasive Mosquito Project will call on middle schools, scout troops and gardening clubs to send real-time mosquito population data to create a centralized map to better target eradication efforts.

Zika virus, carried by several species of mosquito, has now been linked to increasing rates of microcephaly in the babies of  Zika-infected mothers. In adults, the virus is associated with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare condition that damages the peripheral nervous system, causing life-threatening muscle weakness or permanent paralysis. It’s estimated that as many as 4 million cases of Zika virus will affect the Western hemisphere by the end of 2016. With hotter summers predicted across the world, the disease is quickly moving from pandemic to epidemic status.

Not since 1945 has the government enlisted the help of schoolchildren to contribute to a public health issue, when a film shown in schools and movie theatres taught kids how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds in the successful fight against Dengue and Yellow Fever. With this new Zika-control project, volunteers will collect mosquito eggs and upload the data into an online map.

Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) uses data based on historical reports of mosquito-borne disease outbreaks and patchy surveys, but evidence for a more comprehensive habitat estimate remains spotty.

The Kansas-based USDA entomologist Lee Cohnstaedt is behind the Invasive Mosquito Project and has already conducted tryouts involving small numbers of high school students and teachers to prove that they can competently collect the data. The method is simple and involves capturing mosquito eggs on paper towels in plastic cups. The findings can then be entered into a database accessed through a USDA website.

Says Cohnstaedt, this crowdsourcing effort will “save a bunch of money and [collect] better data than we could working alone.”

This novel approach to data collection could help inform many future public health projects – flu incidence without a visit to the GP, wild animal and bird populations as observed in urban environments – all through public announcements, school involvement and website portals. For anyone working on large scale studies, crowdsourcing for information could be an inexpensive fast track to useful scientific information.


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