In recent months, the Zika virus has been making headlines across the United States. The epicenter of the crisis is in Brazil. Although it is not a great threat in North Carolina, the virus has manifested itself three states away in Miami, Florida. Currently, the disease is untreatable, and severe birth defects can result if an expectant mother contracts the virus. Zika has also been linked with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a nervous system ailment.
Here at NC State, strides are being made toward fighting the Zika virus, and other diseases, with the help of an unexpected ally: mathematics. Mathematical biologist Alun Lloyd, director of the Center for Quantitative Sciences in Biomedicine and director of the Biomathematics Graduate Program at NC State, is currently investigating methods of applying mathematics to the control of diseases.
“The bottom line is that we use ideas from mathematics and statistics to study diseases and the main tool is mathematical modeling,” Lloyd said. “One of the things we can use these models for is like a virtual world tool, so we can test and try out disease control measures in the model.”
The methods employed by mathematical biologists are analogous to those used by weather reporters and weather scientist. While there are meteorologists who attempt to tell their viewers what the chances of rain are on a given day, there are also climate scientists who seek to answer more fundamental questions about how the atmosphere works.
Similarly, some mathematical biologists are seeking to determine the probable sizes and locations of disease outbreaks, while others are working toward answering questions on a larger scale and providing scientists and researchers with applicable tools.
Lloyd personally participates in both generalized and specific pathological research. A specialty of his is dengue fever, which is of particular interest today, because the mosquito that is the primary transmitter of dengue fever is also the main mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.
“There are some similarities between the transmission of dengue and the transmission of Zika, and so a lot of the things we’ve learned for dengue could be applied to Zika,” Lloyd said.
One of the specific methods of battling mosquito-borne illnesses that is garnering attention in the scientific community today is transgenic mosquitoes.
Since his arrival at NC State in 2003, Lloyd has been working with a team on modeling an approach that involves modifying male mosquitoes so that their offspring are genetically doomed to short life spans. With this particular transgenic, the idea is that the artificially altered male mosquitoes will mate with wild female mosquitoes, and that the offspring would not survive into adulthood, eventually reducing the mosquito population.
Another proposed method of decreasing rates of mosquito-transmitted diseases is reducing the number of sites available to mosquitoes to lay eggs. Unfortunately, this requires very systematic and involved public participation, and in the long run is expensive and cumbersome.
“That’s a very time intensive effort, and it’s difficult to maintain in the long run,” Lloyd said. “And the other thing is that you might not be able to identify all the places where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs.”
The strategy of limiting breeding places for container-dwelling mosquitoes has the advantage of being actionable on a local scale and requires no new technological developments, in contrast to genetic modification.
“People need to understand where mosquitoes are coming from-their own backyards or their neighbors’,” said Charles Apperson, a professor emeritus of entomology at NC State.
Apperson stresses the importance of eliminating mosquito breeding sites in residential areas now, while continuing the research into more scientifically complex methods for the long term.
A version of this article originally appeared in print on October, 3, 2016, on page 11 with the headline: NC State research fights Zika with math