(Asbury Park Press) -- Are mosquitoes to blame for childhood obesity?
new Rutgers University-led study suggests that may be the case. The
report is one of a few that quantify just how much misery is caused by
mosquitoes - especially the Asian tiger mosquito, a particularly vicious
species that has been colonizing New Jersey and 29 other states since
they are so bad in northern Monmouth County and Trenton that the tiny
pests may be keeping too many kids indoors and passive during the summer
- and contributing to childhood obesity, a new Rutgers report claims.
people in Cliffwood Beach and Union Beach shell out nearly $90 a year
on average to rid their yards of mosquitoes, and they lose nearly two
hours a week of outdoor time because of the bugs.
in its homestretch, the five-year, $3.8 million investigation into the
Asian tiger mosquito invasions of Union Beach, the Cliffwood Beach
section of Aberdeen and Trenton shows that the pests seriously affect
the quality of life in urban and suburban neighborhoods.
looking at the costs - not of controlling the mosquitoes, but what's
the cost of not controlling them?" said Dina Fonseca, a population
geneticist and associate professor with the Rutgers Center for Vector
Asian tiger mosquitoes invading
tiger mosquitoes - so called for their distinctive
black-and-white-striped coloration - are an exotic species that have
staked out a foothold in 30 states since first
showing up in 1985.
are not yet known to be what insect experts call vectors, or major
disease carriers, in North America in the way native mosquitoes can
carry West Nile virus. But in other parts of the world the Asian tiger
transmits serious illnesses like dengue fever. In Southeast Asia, Asian
tigers have spread dengue and chikungunya, a virus that causes a
debilitating, arthritis-like inflammatory disease.
a changing climate, the new mosquito makes American public health
planners worry. The Rutgers study is funded primarily by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, because it wants to find the best way to
fight the insects before they become a disease vector here. The
project's goal is a virtual manual for fighting the Asian tiger, with
both suppression by mosquito-control agencies and public education that
gets the whole community involved in stamping out the bugs.
Mosquitoes have always been an unpleasant fact of summer life in New
Jersey, but the Asian species is something else: a "day biter" that
unlike native mosquitoes preys on people in the daytime heat and light.
The best guess among experts is the mosquitoes arrived in shipments of
used autombile tires from Japan in the early 1980s; the first big
breeding population was discovered at a Houston tire dump in 1985, and
10 years later they showed up in New Jersey.
Measuring time spent outside
study is among a handful that try to quantify exactly how miserable
mosquitoes make people feel. Researchers from Brandeis University,
including Donald Shepard, a health economist who has studied the
economic costs of dengue fever, led a survey of adults in Cliffwood and
part of the study found that three-quarters of the population said their
outdoor activity was limited by mosquitoes, and that households spent
an average of $86 a year on their own controls: bug sprays, screens,
electronic traps and the like. Researchers even averaged out how much
more time people spent outdoors when the mosquitoes were kept under
control: 113 minutes a week, nearly two hours.
study also showed that 41 percent of residents are willing to pay more
to be rid of mosquitoes - on average, $9.54. Not much, compared with
desperate homeowners buying those $200 electric traps (which Fonseca
says do not really work), but if that amount were applied across
Monmouth and Mercer counties, it would add up to $9.6 million a year,
more than three times the current annual budgets of the counties'
mosquito-control agencies, they reported.
Seeking methods to control the bugs
main focus of the USDA-sought project was to find the best ways to
control mosquitoes in urban landscapes. The Asian tiger mosquito is a
particularly challenging pest in city and suburban neighborhoods,
because it can lay its eggs in tiny amounts of standing water like mop
buckets or flowerpots. Mosquito-control workers say they even find the
larvae in bottle caps on the ground.
At those levels of infestation, the researchers thought they could learn the real, everyday effects on people's lives.
course, we'd never have even have contemplated such a study due to the
immense expense of such a large effort, but by piggybacking it onto the
mosquito suppression aspect of our project, we saw that it was
feasible," said professor Randy Gaugler, the director of the Rutgers
Center for Vector Biology and a project organizer. "So mosquito control
in urban settings came first, and the children's physical activity idea
was birthed from that."
Environmental causes of obesity
the team was professor John Worobey of Rutgers' nutritional sciences
department, who studies the relationships between children's diets and
childhood obesity an important topic for the university's recently
launched Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, the researchers saw a
novel approach for measuring mosquitoes as an environmental health
issue for children. Additional funding from the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation helped with this phase of the research.
2009 they recruited 12 children from Cliffwood Beach and Union Beach,
and 26 during 2011, to record in activity logbooks their time spent
outdoors. During those seasons, treatment to kill mosquitoes was
alternated between the two places to see the difference between
"controlled" and "uncontrolled" areas.
a paper published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control
Association, lead author Worobey and his colleagues acknowledge that the
children's playtime study, the first of its kind, was limited by the
relatively small number of children who participated and the fact the
scientists had to rely on the kids' self-reporting of their daily
the authors wrote, the results were clear: "Children residing in the
community where effective abatement took place spent more time outdoors
are a big part of childhood obesity risk, but there are environmental
factors, too, and now mosquitoes can be added to that list, the paper
obesity is difficult to treat, public health efforts need to be
directed toward prevention, which could include mosquito abatement since
physical activity protects against obesity," the researchers wrote.
obesity experts stress the need to remove neighborhood barriers to
playing outside, so the team suggests targeting mosquito controls to
create "Asian tiger mosquito-free environments may positively impact
children's physical activity by encouraging daytime outdoor activities."