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Meet the Bug Guy Who Is Saving Lives - SAMMIES Finalist

The Service to America Medals are like the Oscars for Federal Employees. Each year the Partnership for Public Service honors feds who do amazing work in seven different catorgories. You can see all the nominees here. All summer long the DorobekINSIDER will be interviewing the finalists.

First up is Kenneth Linthicum, the Director of the Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology at the Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville, Florida.

Linthicum developed techniques to predict outbreaks of insect-borne illnesses and protect livestock and humans, including military personnel, from debilitating and life-threatening disease. Linthicum studies tiny insects, from mosquitos to sand flies, that spread diseases that annually kill and sicken millions of people and animals worldwide.

He told Chris Dorobek the Agricultural Research Service is the largest center in the world that studies insects that are pests to crops, people and animals.

"We were formed in the early 1930s in response to a DOD request to help the military solve insect problems in tropical areas," said Linthicum.

Mission

"The ARS does research to answer questions. We also do some basic research but our primary mission is applied research that answers specific questions," said Linthicum.

Predicting an Outbreak - Rift Vally Fever

"We use satellites to measure global and regional elevated sea surface temperatures. Then we measure the subsequent production of elevated rainfall and the elevated growth of vegetation on the ground to develop a model to actually predict a Rift Vally Fever 2-5 months before it occurs," said Linthicum.

What is Rift Vally Fever?

"The disease has been of interest since the 1970s. It is a virus that is transfered to people and animals by the bite of a mosquito. It is an emerging disease and a potential bio-terrorism agent that has no treatment and no licensed human vaccine. The virus causes sever infections in livestock and has a mortality rate of 80%. In humans it can cause blindness and encephalitis and is fatal in 10-20% of people. The disease was restricted to sub-saharan Africa until the late 1970s. Then it moved to Egypt and the Middle East. By 2000 it has moved to the Arabian Peninsula. There is a potential for this to be global infection," said Linthicum.

How Does the Model Work?

Working with scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Linthicum developed a model that uses global climate data and vegetation changes to predict conditions that will lead to floods. Flooding causes mosquito eggs to hatch in the soil, leading to the emergence of the virus in adult mosquitoes and the spread of the disease.

Before this technique was developed, there was no way of knowing when an outbreak would occur. Today, Linthicum’s predictive data provides governments and international organizations with early notice and an opportunity to deploy resources appropriately.

With the Model Countries Can:

  • Quarantine animals
  • Put out information on how to prevent contact with infected animals.
  • If the warning comes out early enough, there may be time to vaccinate animals
  • Dispense bed nets

The model works

In the Horn of Africa in 1997, before Linthicum’s predictive method was developed, there were 100,000 human cases of Rift Valley fever and an estimated $100 million in economic losses in Kenya alone due to the devastation of livestock. In 2006-2007, when Linthicum’s model was first used to predict an outbreak, only 1,000 human cases were reported in the same region, and the economic loss was down to $65 million.

You can find all our Sammies interviews here.

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