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Climate change and the risk of mosquito-borne disease

The University of Glasgow – in collaboration with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) – has been awarded a £1.25m grant aimed at improving our understanding of how climate change could increase the risk of mosquito-borne disease in Scotland, and enhance our preparedness.

The three-year programme, funded by UKRI and Defra as part of a £7m research boost to fight vector-borne disease, will be the first of its kind to assess the risk of mosquito-borne pathogen emergence in Scotland under current and future climate change scenarios.

Vector-borne diseases are a major threat to global animal and human health. Causing more than 700,000 deaths each year, they account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases. While the term ‘vector’ may mean very little to the lay person, many of us will have come across them at one time or another. Vectors are living organisms, and include fleas, lice, mosquitoes and ticks.

Mosquitoes and ticks, in particular, represent a growing threat due to the fact that they are both established and invasive to the UK. The increased risk can be attributed to a number of different factors, from changes in land use to a changing climate. These environmental changes influence the habitats, geographical distribution, longevity and life cycles of vectors in ways that make disease transmission to people and animals more likely.

By working in partnership with UKHSA, the new UofG-led programme will establish vital and comprehensive surveillance of mosquito vectors and their pathogens, extending UKHSA’s surveillance to Scotland, which is currently focussed on England and Wales.

The programme, funded under UKRI’s ‘One Health Approaches to Vector-Borne Diseases’ initiative, will have a specific focus on risks from zoonotic pathogens that could be introduced from migratory birds, and brings together a multidisciplinary team encompassing expertise in mosquito ecology, vector surveillance, avian ecology, mosquito-transmitted pathogens and ecological and epidemiological modelling.

Through the project, researchers will be conducting surveillance of mosquitoes and screening migratory birds across Scotland for the presence of emerging zoonotic pathogens, including West Nile and Usutu Virus; and results will be used to model the risk of pathogen introduction and transmission.

The project, which led by Professor Heather Ferguson at the University of Glasgow’s School of Biodiversity, One Health and Veterinary Medicine and co-led by Dr Emilie Pondeville from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, will incorporate the views of stakeholders from Public Health Scotland, the Scottish Government and environmental agencies; and will make use of existing citizen science data on reports of mosquitoes in Scotland. The public will be urged to get in touch via social media on the @MosquitoScot Twitter account.

Heather Ferguson, Professor of Infectious Disease Ecology at the University of Glasgow, said: “We are thrilled to be joining forces with UKHSA and all the many partners that will make this possible, to extend surveillance activities to Scotland.

“The importance of examining mosquito vectors and their pathogens, in a world in which the climate is changing, can’t be overstated. We are proud to be bringing together a brilliant cross-disciplinary team, with huge expertise in mosquito and avian ecology, pathogen biology and modelling to improve the understanding of how climate change could increase the risk of vector-borne disease in Scotland and enhance preparedness.”

Dr Steven White, Theoretical Ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “Assessing the current and future risk of mosquito-borne diseases in Scotland is of the upmost importance for national planning. In this project, we will integrate cutting-edge models with novel surveillance data to predict the potential areas of risk of disease transmission in Scotland.”

Jolyon Medlock, Head of the Medical Entomology and Zoonoses Ecology team at UKHSA, said: “At a time of environmental change it is really important to investigate the current and potential risk posed by mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease.

“This programme of research will be crucial in improving our understanding and preparedness as we continue to tackle future threats to public health associated with a changing climate.’’

Researchers from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research are also partners in the newly-funded TickTools project – led by the Animal and Plant Health Agency and involving the University of Nottingham – which receives £1.2m from UKRI and Defra to improve the UK’s preparedness for the emergence of endemic and exotic tick-borne diseases. The three-year TickTools project will develop vital new methods to support the diagnostics and surveillance of tick-borne viruses in the UK, as well as investigating alternative therapeutic strategies.

This latest funding from UKRI and Defra will support eight research projects overall, all seeking to tackle vector-borne disease in the UK. The investment is a collaboration between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) strategic themes.

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said: “This latest investment by UKRI and Defra epitomises the importance of a ‘One Health’ approach in tackling infections such as vector-borne disease.

“If we are to truly understand the risks posed vector-borne disease, we must first build our understanding of the links between animal, human and environmental health. And that can only be achieved by collaborating across sectors and disciplines.

“The eight projects receiving funding offer real potential to build the UK’s national defence and response capabilities by tackling infectious diseases that pose a genuine threat to people and animals worldwide.”

Professor Gideon Henderson, Defra Chief Scientific Advisor, said: “The funding for this important research, which brings together a wealth of expertise from some of the best scientific institutions in the UK, will continue to build and prepare the UK for the emergence of endemic and exotic tick-borne diseases.

“This coordinated scientific effort forms part of the UK’s commitment to work at the interface between environmental, human and animal health to improve outcomes for all.”

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