Within hours of reading in The New York Times that the West Nile virus had been isolated from a flamingo at The Bronx Zoo in the summer of 1999, Yale professor Durland Fish, Ph.D., was at the zoo, preparing to collect mosquitoes [Spring 2000, “To the Vector Go the Spoils”]. Since then, the disease has spread to 45 states, been diagnosed in 3,500 people and claimed 200 lives. As the virus has moved from anomaly to epidemic, Fish and his colleagues in the vector biology program have remained on the case.
Now a grant to Fish will allow Yale to strengthen the nation’s response to vector-borne diseases like West Nile. With $1.3 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the School of Public Health will join two other Yale schools in training six doctoral candidates in a “whole-organism” approach to vector-borne diseases—which includes the field study of insects and other arthropods that carry disease. The grant will also fund summer fieldwork for 20 students in epidemiology and public health.
Fish said the grant would help redress an imbalance in research into vector-borne diseases. “In recent decades, it has been very much lopsided toward the laboratory,” he said. Research has focused on developing vaccines, which have proven either unattainable (in the case of malaria, for example) or impractical (“Who are they going to vaccinate against West Nile?” Fish asks. “The whole country?”). The whole-organism approach complements lab research, allowing scientists to understand “the entire living organism in its environment. These things happen outdoors, in the fields, in the woods.” Fish said vector-borne diseases are proliferating because of environmental change, such as the reforestation that has benefited the ticks that carry Lyme disease; and because of increased international trade and travel, which introduces exotic organisms like the mosquitoes carrying West Nile. Those mosquitoes, or that mosquito, Fish theorizes, arrived in New York City on a jet. The possibility of bioterrorism poses a new threat. “West Nile is a scary example of what would happen if somebody wanted to introduce something,” Fish said.