February 14, 2018
In the summer of 2016, Jerome Goddard, a medical entomologist in Mississippi, received an email from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with a desperate ask. The agency was conducting an “urgent” search for insect scientists around the U.S. who could take up to a six-month paid leave from work to help the CDC fight the Zika outbreak in the U.S., and possibly respond to areas with local transmission if needed.
“That’s how bad it is—they need to borrow someone,” says Goddard, an extension professor of medical entomology at Mississippi State University. “We can’t find people to investigate an outbreak.”
Medical entomology—the study of insects and arthropods that impact human health—has been a shrinking field for at least two decades, and the lack of bug scientists is now interfering with the nation’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks. The CDC, which has about 12,000 employees, only has 13 medical entomologists on staff.
The dwindling workforce has serious consequences for human health; diseases spread by insects are on the rise in the United States. Chikungunya, a new disease spread by mosquitoes, has emerged in the past five years, and since 1999, seven new tick-borne diseases have been discovered in the United States. Cases of Lyme disease have increased from a reported 17,209 in 2001 to 36,429 in 2016—a 111% rise. (The CDC estimates that the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the U.S. is much more—around 300,000.)