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A Mosquito Goes Global

A Mosquito Goes Global - NEWSFOCUS A Mosquito Goes Global...

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When entomologist Paul Reiter made an odd discovery at a leafy old cemetery in Mem- phis, Tennessee, few people thought it was a big deal. At the graveyard’s refuse dump, where he was studying mosquito behavior and ecology, Reiter, then with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had caught a bug seen only a few times before in the Western Hemisphere: an Asian tiger mosquito ( Aedes albopictus ). “How the heck did it get here?” was his first thought. When he reported the find to the local health department, the official was nonplussed. “You better not find another one of those, or people may think you put it there!” he joked. What- ever it was, it wasn’t cause for alarm. The year was 1983, and nobody knew that the Asian tiger mosquito was about to go on a global rampage. Within a few years, it was found in several southeastern states of the United States, in numbers so great that nobody could suspect Reiter—who’s now at the Pasteur Institute in Paris—of planting them. Twenty-five years later, the mosquito has invaded 36 U.S. states, as well as many coun- tries in South and Central America. It’s on the march in Africa and the Middle East, has exploded in Italy, and seems set to conquer large swaths of Europe. Greenhouses in the Netherlands have been its latest and northern- most outpost. A worldwide trade in second- hand tires—which often contain water—has been the key to its wide-scale conquest. Lately, an exotic plant called Lucky bamboo has also given it a free ride. An aggressive daytime biter, Ae . albopictus is making life hell for gardeners and ruining picnics and wedding receptions. But the 2005–06 outbreak of an obscure disease called chikungunya in the Indian Ocean as well as a smaller one last summer in Italy have shown that it could also threaten human health— although how much is still fiercely debated among medical entomologists. Some take heart from the fact that although Ae . albopic- tus can be infected with a dizzying variety of viruses in the lab, so far in the real world it has been a rather wimpy disease vector. But others warn that its rise could confront Europe and the United States with serious outbreaks of dis- eases now restricted to the tropics. Stowaways The Asian tiger mosquito, so called because of its bright white stripes, hails from East and Southeast Asia, where it originally lived at the edges of forests, breeding in tree holes and other small natural reservoirs. It has adapted easily to human settlements, where pots, vases, and buckets can replace tree holes, provided there’s a bit of vegetation nearby. The mosquito is believed to have spread along with humans to Madagascar and the smaller Indian Ocean islands centuries ago. But its big break came with the advent of modern shipping. After World War II, when huge amounts of military equipment were sent back to the United States from war zones, inspectors from the U.S. Public Health Ser- vice discovered that Ae . albopictus had trav- eled along as a stowaway in used tires, as had six other exotic mosquito species. Radical
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