Bug Word of the Day: Arbovirus

The word arbovirus is an example of a portmanteau, a word that was created by mashing together portions of other words.

It’s a noun that means “arthropod-borne virus,” but takes less time to say. The word was created by taking “ar” from arthropod and “bo” from borne, then using them as a prefix to the word “virus.”

The arbovirus classification includes many well-known pathogens vectored by mosquitoes, notably the viruses responsible for yellow fever, West Nile fever, dengue fever, and Zika virus disease, all of which are transmitted by mosquitoes. There are other blood-feeding arthropods that transmit viruses that can cause diseases in people and animals, such as fleas and ticks. Also, there are other types of pathogens that mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and other arthropods can transmit, such as nematodes, bacteria, and protozoa.  However, arboviruses are always viruses.

For arboviruses to live and spread, they need two things: a vector and a host.

A vector is the organism that carries the virus and transmits it to other organisms. (For more about the word “vector” and the broader category of vector-borne diseases see this week’s Bug Word of the Day selections). When we’re talking about arboviruses, the vector is almost always a mosquito.

Let’s pause for a quick history lesson.

Arboviruses have existed throughout human history, but they weren’t identified until about a century ago. In 1881, a Cuban physician named Carlos Finlay was the first to propose the idea that mosquitoes transmitted a disease-causing pathogen, in this case, the virus responsible for yellow fever. In 1901, Finlay’s idea was confirmed by Major Walter Reed of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, which led to great advances in epidemiology and public health. Some arboviruses were still common in temperate parts of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, and were so ubiquitous in Panama that they had led France to abandon the Panama Canal excavation project in the late 1880s. In 1904, mosquito-control methods made it possible for the U.S. to resume construction of the canal and complete it in 1914.

Today, UF/IFAS scientists devote their time to studying arboviruses and their effect on the residents of Florida. In 1956, The Florida Medical Entomological Laboratory (FMEL) was established in Vero Beach, dedicated solely to researching the biology and control of biting insects and other arthropods that transmit disease. The scientists at FMEL look at the biochemistry and molecular biology of organisms like mosquitoes and sandflies, devise methods such as removal trapping and wastewater management for the control of organisms that spread arboviruses, and work to inform the public about arboviruses and ways to protect against them. Check out the Mosquito Information Website (http://mosquito.ifas.ufl.edu/ ) for more information about mosquito research at UF/IFAS, including a mosquito identification database, information on mosquito-borne diseases, and ways to manage mosquitoes.

But back to our regularly scheduled programming: arboviruses and your health.

It depends on the specific virus involved, but arboviruses generally have an incubation period of about 3-15 days and symptoms usually last for 3 or 4 days once they appear. The majority of people who become infected with an arbovirus don’t display any symptoms of illness. For those who do become sick, most of them experience flu-like symptoms, possibly including muscle aches, joint pain, fever, nausea and vomiting. Occasionally, mosquito-borne viruses can cause life-threatening illnesses in people, especially those with compromised or deliberately suppressed immune systems, such as infants, seniors, people recovering from serious illnesses and transplant patients using anti-rejection drugs.

We don’t want to scare you, because arboviruses are nothing to panic about – they’re just one more routine hazard that people need to avoid as they go about their lives.

The good news is, basic precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes will go a long way toward protecting you from arbovirus infections – eliminate mosquito habitats around your property (almost anything that holds water!) and when you go outdoors, use an appropriate repellent, wear suitable clothing, and try to schedule your activities at a time/place that isn’t likely to feature a heavy mosquito presence.

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Photo by Fred Murphy and Sylvia Whitfield, CDC