Biology Professor Monitoring New Mosquito Borne Virus

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St. Louis County Vector Control Continuing Efforts Starting Aug. 1

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., July 23, 2014 – Dr. Christina Frazier has dedicated her career to what goes buzz in the night, working to protect thousands of Missourians from those summertime pests — mosquitoes.

This summer began no differently than the past 35 years. She’s already tested 1,500 pools of 50 vector mosquitoes each from St. Louis County in Southeast Missouri State University’s Arbovirus Lab. Frazier tests the pools to determine if they include mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus. About 12 of those pools have tested positive for West NileVirus, she said.

“That’s a little low,” said Frazier, professor of biology. “The virus is still active in St. Louis County. There’s no question” about that. “I don’t think we’ll have a bumper crop this year. We are getting good numbers in St. Louis, but they aren’t that huge.”

Her concern this summer, though, has turned to chikungunya, a virus transmitted by mosquitoes causing an epidemic in the Caribbean with cases now identified in Florida. The name “chikungunya” is derived from a native African dialect, where the disease was first identified, she said. “Chikungunya” means “to bend up,” Frazier says, because the disease causes extreme joint pain and fever.

One of the mosquitoes that transmits this virus is called Aedes albopictus, commonly known as the Asian Tiger mosquito.

“We have a lot of these in Cape Girardeau,” she said, adding they are prevalent in the St. Louis area as well.

The mosquitoes spread chikungunya by biting someone who has the virus, then biting other people.

Chikungunya, Frazier said, is rarely as deadly as West Nile Virus, but causes more pain. The virus has not been detected in this part of the country yet, but is cause for concern, she said.

To reduce the risk of being bitten by an Aedes albopictus mosquito, like other mosquitoes, people should rid their yards of objects that hold water, such as old tires, bird baths and dog water dishes, she said, as they become breeding grounds.

Beginning in 1994, Southeast Missouri State University became the site of a statewide mosquito testing lab under an agreement with the Missouri Department of Health to conduct mosquito surveillance. Under the partnership, county health departments from across Missouri sent trapped mosquitoes in weekly batches during summer months to Southeast’s Arbovirus Lab to determine if the pests were carrying either West Nile Virus or St. Louis Encephalitis.

After years of collaborative work, the Lab quit testing mosquitoes collected locally seven years ago and stopped training county health department officials to trap them two years ago when federal funding for the project came to a halt. But Frazier’s work with St. Louis County Vector Control to monitor mosquitoes from St. Louis County continued. The county uses the information gleaned from the Lab’s testing to concentrate their mosquito control efforts, she said.

St. Louis County Vector Control will step up its involvement when it takes over the work of the Arbovirus Lab Aug. 1 when Frazier plans to retire from Southeast Missouri State University. Frazier will begin training their staff on how to test for vector mosquitoes beginning this week.

“I’m happy St. Louis County is picking it up,” she said.

For Frazier, her life’s work has been a labor of love that was sparked as an 11th grade student in upstate New York. That’s when her biology teacher introduced her to microbiology, and Frazier broke the news to her father, an electrical engineer, that she planned to pursue a career as a biologist, not an engineer. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

She enrolled as an undergraduate in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University, where she spent a summer working in the microbiology lab. After earning her undergraduate degree at Cornell, she was invited to work for a summer in Yale University’s Arbovirus Research Unit in the area of epidemiology, where she worked both in the laboratory and the field. Having spent a fair amount of time working on a family farm, she felt comfortable in the outdoor setting as well as in the laboratory, she said.

She returned the following year as a doctoral student at Yale, where she earned a doctoral degree in virology/epidemiology with an emphasis on arboviruses. She launched her career teaching freshmen chemistry at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn. Her final year there was spent teaching microbiology before she joined Southeast Missouri State University where she’s taught and researched for 35 years in addition to serving as associate to the provost for data analysis and assessment.

“The nice thing about it was no one was doing arboviruses here,” she said, so she could build the Southeast Missouri Arbovirus Lab with grant funding from the ground up in Rhodes Hall of Science.

Next month, she plans to return to her native stomping grounds just west of Syracuse, N.Y. She says she will split her time between her family in New York and fellow graduate school classmates in St. Augustine, Fla. Frazier says she is considering volunteering her time with the mosquito control district on Anastasia Island, east of St. Augustine. This fall and next spring, she also will teach a biology webinars online at Southeast, covering immunology, pathogenic microbiology and epidemiology.

“I know I will stay in contact with St. Louis County until they are established,” she said, “and I will stay in contact with Anastasia,” eventually weaning away from teaching.

“I feel we’ve accomplished something,” here in Missouri, Frazier said. “I’m leaving the state in a much better position for Arbovirus surveillance than when I got here.”

During her tenure, she created a pictorial mosquito key distributed to Missouri county health departments to help them identify vector mosquitoes and trained some 25 students in the laboratory.

“The thing I’m proudest of is that two of them went on to get Centers for Disease Control Fellowships in epidemiology,” she said. “It’s the culture of our department that encourages, supports, challenges and hires people who do research involving students that’s really important.”

Her work at Southeast, she says, “allowed me to train students. We do what we do to provide opportunities to students. Southeast has provided a service (vector mosquito surveillance) to the region and the state, and allowed me to do what I love to do, both in the field and in the laboratory.”

Frazier says her work as a virologist at Southeast has proven to be the perfect mix of field work and laboratory research with a focus on her natural orientation toward virus transmission and public health.

“I think Missouri has shown that you could do a decentralized response” to mosquito surveillance with already established resources, she said. “We showed that using existing resources and with little money, you could mount an effective surveillance statewide program for arboviruses. They couldn’t have done it without the biosafety lab here at Southeast.”