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HOME>>About WRAIR>>News and Publications>>AFPMB Tuesday, October 23 2018

DoD Project Puts Bugs in the Crosshairs Beyond the Battlefield

By David Pecor



October 7, 2014. In late summer of 2014, members of the Entomology branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) met with representatives from nine Federal agencies to discuss a common enemy, ticks. Debilitating illnesses like Lyme disease and anaplasmosis are transmitted by ticks and the US Military has had a long standing interest in protecting Warfighters from this threat. The WRAIR offered assistance to this group by way of VectorMap, a recently developed tool designed to help health planners mitigate the risk of exposure to vector-borne diseases.

In the Greenbelt/College Park Maryland area there are approximately 80,000 acres of land maintained by a variety of Federal agencies including the EPA, USDA, NASA, USFWS, the National Park Service, Secret Service and the US Army. Currently, each agency employs some method of tick monitoring or control with the common goal of preventing personnel from exposure to tick-borne diseases. Some agencies are collecting ticks and testing them for pathogens while others are applying a variety of tick management techniques.

Until recently, no one had an easy way to share information on seasonal distributions of ticks, results of control efforts or a central system to share collection data and results of tick-borne disease testing. That changed after a conversation with the VectorMap team. VectorMap provides a platform by which these agencies can share knowledge with each other and gain insight into the level of risk in an area of interest.

VectorMap is a global vector surveillance data repository and web-based risk assessment product of the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit (WRBU) which operates out of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Funded by the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System (GEIS) Division at the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC), VectorMap compiles and disseminates information on vector hazards that could be used to help keep personnel safe from diseases like malaria, dengue and Lyme.

Mosquitoes, ticks and other vectors pose a significant risk to Warfighters around the world, but also impact civilians here in the US. VectorMap helps inform decision makers, planners and vector control personnel about where vector collection and control efforts should be directed, before boots are on the ground, by identifying areas most suitable to support vector populations.

Over 3600 species of mosquitoes, and 850 species of ticks, each with different distributions and life histories, complicate the risk of vector-borne diseases. With nearly 500,000 records, VectorMap hosts the world’s largest repository of collection records, many from other DoD funded projects and specimen holdings of museums such as the Smithsonian. VectorMap is a permanent repository for vector occurrence records around the globe and is versatile enough to conduct risk assessments on a global, regional or local level through the use of predictive computer models.

By combining collection records, climate data, pathogen testing results and predictive modelling in a geographic information system environment, VectorMap can provide a clearer picture of vector hazards and disease risk on a global, regional or local level.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the US. VectorMap provides a one-stop shop for information on where the vector, Ixodes scapularis (black-legged tick), has been collected, where it is most likely to occur, and where the causative agent Borrelia burgdorferi has been recorded in humans and other animals. This capability is crucial for meeting threats from exotic vector and pathogen introductions and for tracking emerging infections.

West Nile Virus (WNV) was first discovered in the US in the late 1990's and since then, has resulted in regular epidemics across the US that are tracked by the CDC. VectorMap provides information that can help forecast where the vector (Mosquitoes in the genera Culex and Aedes) may occur. For example, remote sensing data collected by NASA satellites can be processed to show where rainfall has been higher than average, a good indicator of increased mosquito numbers.

While commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) was first detected in the Caribbean in December 2013. Since then, cases have been reported from Central and South America, and in 42 states here in the US. In addition to identifying suitable habitats and tracking the distribution of the vector (mosquitoes in the genus Aedes), VectorMap can also provide map layers from other sources, like Google. Using GoogleTrends, it is possible to monitor where Google queries about a specified topic are most common. For example, areas being affected by an outbreak are more likely to have a higher number of Google queries about the vector and symptoms of the disease. This type of data can provide early warning of an outbreak before cases have been fully reported allowing for rapid implementation of monitoring and control measures.

The timely acquisition of data directly affects how effective VectorMap can be. The VectorMap team is always in need of additional collaborators and collection records from recent geo-referenced surveillance results from across the globe. In addition to Federal partners and military personnel, VectorMap also collects data from museum collections, published scientific literature and from international collaborators. Organizations or individuals with relevant data or risk models are encouraged to contribute to VectorMap to make their data available to health planners, researchers and the general public. Any data contributions will enhance the risk assessment capabilities of VectorMap. This is not only critical to protecting Warfighters but civilians here at home as well.

If you have surveillance data you wish to contribute, write us at:


Last Modified Date: 09-September-2016

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