Beaufort County has partnered with University of South Carolina Beaufort researchers to study mosquitoes that carry and transmit the West Nile virus.
The effort could lead to new strategies for controlling mosquito populations, which in turn could protect residents from contracting the virus, county officials say.
"The primary benefit of the study is to reduce the risk of West Nile virus infecting residents of Beaufort County," says Gregg Hunt, director of Beaufort County Mosquito Control. "It's impossible to prevent the disease, so the goal is to reduce the risk of the disease occurring."
The county's mosquito control department routinely sprays for mosquitoes from trucks and airplanes. It also treats all 19,000 drainage catch basins -- prime breeding grounds -- each year.
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Some of those drainage basins have been outfitted with sensors that collect temperature, humidity, rainfall and other weather data. The county keeps records from mosquito traps and on things such as spraying locations and citizen complaints.
That information has been turned over to USCB professor Kasia Pawelek and student researchers Patrick Niehaus, Samia Durborow and Kristen Harrison. For the past few months, the team has been searching for patterns that could prove useful in the fight against mosquitoes.
"We are using mathematical models, along with surveillance data, to explore optimal control strategies of mosquito populations to lower the possibility of West Nile virus transmission in Beaufort County," Pawelek said.
Although the results are still preliminary, they show that the elimination of breeding areas by residents "could be potentially a very effective method to control the populations."
In other words, dumping out the birdbath or turning over an old tire or unused planter after it rains can make a difference.
The study also is exploring the effects of different spraying frequencies and locations, as well as the effect temperature and moisture have on mosquito populations, among other things. These results are not yet available.
At least one case of West Nile was confirmed in mosquito pools and bird populations last year in Beaufort County, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. However, no county residents contracted the virus.
Statewide, 41 people contracted the virus last year. But in Dallas, Texas, a West Nile epidemic infected hundreds last summer, killing at least 14 people.
Funding for the project was provided by a $5,000 grant from the Sea Island Institute. Niehaus, the student researcher, is supported by a $2,000 Magellan Scholarship.
No county money has been spent on the effort, Hunt said.
"There is so much data and so many things we can draw out of it. At the moment we don't see a stop to this study," Pawelek said.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.