Bold Thinking at Abt: Global Health Security

Ryan Takeshita

Associate, Environment and Natural Resources
Entomology, Zika
A mosquito weighs less than three milligrams, or the weight of a common prescription tablet. Yet the impact of mosquitoes is felt worldwide. Over 725,000 people worldwide die from mosquito-borne diseases each year. Ryan Takeshita’s work is at the intersection of this impact, examining how epidemics spread and intensify based on the environment, insects, and humans.

Science to Unpack Zika Infection and Transmission

Abt Associates’ Takeshita, along with colleagues Michelle Krasnec and Karen Dean, and researchers from UC Davis are studying which species of mosquitoes can be infected with the Zika virus and transmit the disease.

“With Zika, it is a public health emergency with a lot of unknowns. We believe that two species of mosquitoes can transmit the virus, but it’s possible there are other species that could contribute to the spread of the disease,” says Takeshita.

This concern has less to do with fear mongering than a focus on taking bench science to the decision makers that need the information most. Takeshita explains that global travel makes it all too easy for infectious diseases to spread. A person bitten by a mosquito and infected with Zika can travel anywhere and introduce Zika to local mosquitoes. If that person is bitten and the mosquitoes transmit Zika on to others, the problem can quickly become much more widespread.

“In Texas, you have more than 80 different species of mosquitoes. In Louisiana, you have over 60,” Takeshita says. “Beyond Aedes aegypti, can any of them become infected when exposed to Zika? If they do, will they pass it on? How about with different strains of the virus? And in different environmental conditions? The answers to these questions affect how you begin to respond to Zika or any mosquito-borne infectious disease.”

To test the mosquitoes, Takeshita and the research team will raise mosquito colonies, from larvae to adult and allow them to feed on blood with the virus. After an incubation period, they will test the mosquitos for Zika infection. If Zika is also present in their saliva, then the mosquitoes can transmit the disease. The research team may also examine how factors, such as temperature and humidity, change infection and transmission rates.

Knowledge to Inform Local Practice

This understanding, Takeshita points out, goes a long way in bridging scientific knowledge to everyday use. “Communities can use this information to plan and respond,” he explains. “If there’s a type of mosquito in Texas that can transmit Zika, we can identify the types of vector control that will help. Communities can start to take action knowing what works before infections spread.”

Moreover, with new Zika cases in Florida, Takeshita knows his science cannot come a day too early. “Zika is a problem but it’s also the infectious disease of the day. The kind of activities and infrastructure that we are building to address Zika must be robust enough to address any of the mosquito-borne diseases. We need to build systems that can sustainably help decision makers and communities deal with the threats of infectious disease, regardless of what that virus or disease is.”

Areas of Expertise

  • Molecular biology
  • Vector competence
  • Environmental toxicology
  • Entomology