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AFHSB tracks bugs worldwide to protect service members

Group of people in forest gathering samples MAJ Jaree Johnson (far right) and her team conducted field insecticidal resistance surveillance to establish a baseline for potential resistant mosquitoes on Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

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Ticks, mosquitoes, and other blood-feeding arthropods can transmit dangerous pathogens to U.S. military personnel. The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch’s (AFHSB) Global Emerging Infections Surveillance (GEIS) program monitors these ticks and mosquitoes—also called vectors—for disease and the pathogens they carry in order to prevent the spread of diseases to Service members.

“The U.S. military has a long history of battling vector-borne diseases. Protecting our Service members is vital to the Department of Defense labs, host countries, and regional partners who conduct disease surveillance work to understand the threats that may impact military personnel and local populations,” said Navy Capt. Guillermo Pimentel, GEIS chief.

The GEIS Febrile and Vector-borne Infections (FVBI) program focuses on four areas:

  • identifying pathogens that cause fever in humans, like dengue or Zika
  • tracking malaria for mutations that might affect our ability to protect, diagnose, and treat our Service members
  • monitoring the distribution of the mosquitoes, ticks, and sandflies that transmit viruses and bacteria to humans
  • mapping and forecasting risk of these diseases 

The GEIS FVBI program supports vector and vector-borne disease surveillance projects in more than 40 countries around the world.

“We work closely with DoD laboratories and public health organizations in each of the geographic combatant command areas of responsibility,” said U.S. Public Health Service Lt. (Dr.) Brett Forshey, lead of the GEIS FVBI program. “These groups collaborate with other local partners in the region, which is key for extending our ability to conduct surveillance for these vectors and diseases.”

DoD partners within the GEIS network and their collaborators are on the ground gathering information about where mosquitoes, ticks, and sand flies are found in different parts of the world. GEIS partners then rely on extensive laboratory expertise to identify the species of mosquito, tick, or sand fly and determine which viruses, bacteria, and parasites they carry. GEIS partners also coordinate to determine how often mosquitoes resist chemicals commonly used to lower their populations.

One of our key projects is to bring all the mosquito and tick detection data together and use it to better understand the types of risks that exist for our Service members,” said Forshey. “Turning that data into actionable information for our military is a challenge, but one that needs to be addressed in order to provide the best guidance possible for those that might be exposed.”

Another issue is timeliness – transporting samples back to the lab can be time consuming and the information received may not be up-to-date. “We need to develop better processes that will allow us to quickly identify these arthropod vectors and pathogens they carry, to help make decisions to limit diseases and prevent transmission to military populations.

“We need to remember that before the current pandemic, West Nile, chikungunya, and Zika viruses emerged out of obscurity to spread rapidly to many parts of the world. There are surely many other pathogens transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks poised to do the same,” said Forshey. “We are still searching for vaccines and treatments for many of these pathogens. For others, we need to keep an eye on whether the vaccines and treatments still work.”

Pimentel agrees. “Knowing the threats and preventing exposure – including proper wear of insecticide-treated uniforms – is still the best way to keep our Service members healthy.”

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