That’s why Martinez and Rund are now calling for the creation of a national database of mosquito records that anyone can access. “There’s a huge amount of taxpayer investment and human effort that goes into setting traps, checking them weekly, dissecting all those mosquitoes under a microscope, and tabulating the data,” says Martinez. “It would be a big bang for our buck to collate all that data and make it available.”
Martinez is a disease modeler—someone who uses real-world data to build simulations that reveal how infections rise, spread, and fall. She typically works with childhood diseases like measles and polio, where researchers are almost spoiled for data. Physicians are legally bound to report any cases, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiles and publishes this information as a weekly report.
The same applies to cases of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Zika, but not to populations of the insects themselves. So, during last year’s Zika epidemic, when Martinez wanted to study the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads the disease, she had a tough time. “I was really surprised that I couldn’t find data on Aedes aegypti numbers,” she says. Her colleagues explained that scientists use climate variables like temperature and humidity to predict where mosquitoes are going to be abundant. That seemed ludicrous to her, especially since organizations collect information on the actual insects. It’s just that no one ever gathers those figures together.
Together with Rund and a team of undergraduate students, she found that there are more than 1,000 separate agencies in the United States that collect mosquito data—at least one in every county or jurisdiction. Only 152 agencies make their data publicly available in some way. The team collated everything they could find since 2009, and ended up with information about more than 15 million mosquitoes. Imagine what they’d have if all the datasets were open, especially since some go back decades.
A few mosquito-related databases do exist, but none are quite right. ArboNET, which is managed by the CDC and state health departments, mainly stores data about mosquito-borne diseases, and whatever information it has on the insects themselves isn’t precise enough in either time or space to be useful for modeling. MosquitoNET, which was developed by the CDC, does track mosquitoes, but “it’s a completely closed system, and hardly anyone has access to it,” says Rund. The Smithsonian Institution’s VectorMap is better in that it’s accessible, “but it lacks any real-time data from the continental United States,” says Rund. “When I checked a few months ago, it had just one record of Aedes aegypti since 2013.”
“That’s why we came up with this idea of a national surveillance system,” Martinez says. “The U.S. government should make it a requirement for mosquito-control boards to send in their data.”