Rain with Chance of West Nile: Weather Could Predict Outbreaks (Podcast)
Larvae of Culex mosquitoes.
Credit: James Gathany, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Charlie Heck, multimedia news editor at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Sprays, candles and zappers — what do they have in common? They might just be your only defense against backyard barbecue crashers: mosquitoes. While these little bugs can put a damper on outdoor activities, they can also have much worse effects, by transmitting West Nile virus. Although 80 percent of people infected with this virus don't get sick, and less than 1 percent develop serious infections of the brain or spinal cord, there is no vaccine or specific treatment for the disease.

This is an enlarged view of a <i>Culex quinquefasciatus</i> mosquito that had landed upon the skin of a human host.
This is an enlarged view of a Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito that had landed upon the skin of a human host.
Credit: James Gathany, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What if scientists could "forecast" West Nile outbreaks? With support from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), a team of scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a strong correlation between weather conditions and the occurrence of West Nile virus in the United States, raising the possibility of a West Nile virus forecasting system. 

This transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed the presence of West Nile virus virions in an isolate that was grown in a cell culture.
This transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed the presence of West Nile virus virions in an isolate that was grown in a cell culture.
Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In a podcast for Science360, NSF interviewed Micah Hahn, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the CDC and Andy Monaghan, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, both members of the research team. 

A digitally colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the West Nile virus.
A digitally colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the West Nile virus.
Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"Because there's no vaccine or treatment for West Nile, we're really predicting when and where we might expect to see higher risk, so we can help target public health messages to high-risk regions of the country," said Hahn. "Counties will have additional information to use for deciding about when, where and if they should do mosquito control."

This map shows the average number of cases annually of West Nile virus with neurological symptoms reported to the CDC from 1999 to 2013. Close to 40,000 cases were reported during that period, with more than 1,600 deaths.
This map shows the average number of cases annually of West Nile virus with neurological symptoms reported to the CDC from 1999 to 2013. Close to 40,000 cases were reported during that period, with more than 1,600 deaths.
Credit: UCAR; CDC ArboNET

The team plans to add additional variables to refine the predictions and eventually create a forecast of where the United States can expect to see higher risk of outbreaks in the coming seasons, the researchers said. [5 Things You Need to Know About West Nile Virus ]

Hahn is lead author and Monaghan co-author of the paper, "Meteorological conditions associated with increased incidence of West Nile virus in the United States," published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene.

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