UF/IFAS Extension Zika Challenge empowers faculty, public to take up the fight against mosquitoes

A albopictus. Asian Tiger Mosquito. Photo: James Newman

Please see caption at the end of the story.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim Davis is studying hard for his public health pest control license exam. In the past, getting this license wouldn’t be a usual part of his job. But with the recent public concern about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, expertise in mosquito control could soon be the norm for many University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension faculty like Davis.

Davis and several others have already signed up for the UF/IFAS Extension Zika Challenge, a new program that helps Extension faculty become public health pest control license (PHPC) holders. Faculty will use this training and other outreach strategies to educate their communities about mosquito control.

Ken Gioeli, a UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County agent, wondered if other Extension agents would benefit from this training after he got his own PHPC license. The Zika Challenge grew out of discussions Gioeli had with Anita Neal, director for UF/IFAS Extension’s south district, and Roxanne Connelly, a professor and Extension specialist at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Florida. Gioeli and Connelly designed the program.

Connelly wanted to make sure that the Zika Challenge would in fact challenge UF/IFAS Extension faculty. To that end, in addition to passing the licensing exam, faculty must actively engage their communities and local pest control professionals in the fight against mosquitoes.

“A lot of people think mosquito control equals spraying, but we want people to understand that there is a lot more to it than that,” Connelly said. “This is a community effort. If you assume other people will prevent mosquitoes from breeding, you might end up being the cause of the problem.”

Connelly emphasized that while the Zika virus has not been detected in Florida mosquitoes, reducing populations of mosquito species associated with the virus is an important preventative measure.

Anita Neal, director for UF/IFAS Extension’s south district, was an early advocate for the Zika Challenge. “We believe that UF/IFAS Extension should be poised and ready to assist the community with potential health threats,” said Neal. “The Zika Challenge is one method to inform the public about what it can do to lessen potential mosquito problems.”

Saqib Mukhtar, associate dean for Extension and agricultural programs leader, also expressed his support. “This innovative educational program is one more effective approach toward keeping Floridians informed and safe,” he said.

The Zika Challenge is somewhat unique in that it is not aimed at UF/IFAS Extension faculty who specialize in a particular area. All faculty, whether they focus on youth development, citrus or livestock, need to spread the word about mosquitoes to their clientele, Gioeli said.

Once they are licensed, faculty can tailor their outreach efforts to their clients’ needs. For example, William Lester, a UF/IFAS Extension Hernando County agent, is planning to show series of videos about mosquito control during his gardening classes.

Faculty can also use social media to help combat the misinformation about mosquitoes often found online, Gioeli explained. “We want our clientele to be skeptical and cautious about what they see online and make sure that it is backed by UF/IFAS research,” he said.

UF/IFAS Extension county offices are offering licensing exams free of charge. Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office for dates and times the exam will be offered. The deadline for UF/IFAS Extension faculty to sign up for the Zika Challenge is July 1. For more information, please go to http://stlucie.ifas.ufl.edu/zikachallenge.html.

Caption: The Asian tiger mosquito, one of the species that can transmit the Zika virus. Photo by James Newman

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By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Roxanne Connelly, 772-778-7200 ext. 172, crr@ufl.edu

Jim Davis, 352-569-6867, dvisshdn@ufl.edu

Ken Gioeli, 772-462-1660, ktgioeli@ufl.edu

William Lester, 352-754-4433, wlester@ufl.edu

Anita Neal, 561-922-1280, asn@ufl.edu

Saqib Mukhtar, 352-392-1761, smukhtar@ufl.edu