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ECU Technology could help track West Nile virus

(June 14, 2004)   —   East Carolina University researchers hope wireless computers will soon streamline the identification and tracking of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus.

The innovation, a combination of wireless Personal Digital Assistants and wearable computers, is a result of a partnership between ECU and the U.S. Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.

The goal of the project is to evaluate how wireless technology could speed the identification of mosquito species and their habitats from the field, thus helping to track and combat the spread of West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses. A pilot study of the new identification system will begin in North Carolina this fall.

In the past, identifying a collection of mosquitoes could take days as only certified technicians and researchers could perform the identification of species, said ECU environmental health professor Alice Anderson.

"You wouldn't have complete answers unless you called an expert who collected the mosquitoes, identified them and submitted them to a laboratory for virus testing," said Anderson, who has studied mosquitoes in North Carolina for the past 20 years. Digitized images of mosquitoes on a data card would enable researchers to identify a mosquito by comparing a collected specimen with the digital mosquito image on file.

"We want to bring this skill and technology to more people, which will help public health to collect more information. The more data we can collect on the disease, the more inexpensive and effective preventing it is going to be," she said.

J. Barry DuVall, Director of ECU's Center for Wireless and Mobile Computing, led the charge to design an interactive mosquito identification system that researchers can use in the field. DuVall said the technology is simple enough that even classrooms of children or adult volunteers could learn how to identify mosquitoes. The information, which can be tracked and transmitted instantly through a Global Positioning System, will help health professionals to target and treat the areas where harmful mosquito species live and breed.

In addition to the support received from ECU's Health Education and Promotion department, the Division of Distance Learning, and ECU's Multimedia Center, the U.S. Army lent two wearable computers to ECU for use in this research. One is a Xybernaut wearable computer with a head-mounted display. The other is a Dell Axim handheld computer used with Garmin Rino Geographical Positioning systems.

Anthony Gutierrez, chief of the Molecular Biology Laboratory for the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, serves as advisor for the project. Having an accurate vector identification system, he said, plays a critical role in assessing health risks for military personnel stationed in remote areas. ECU's current effort will someday enable soldiers to not only identify a mosquito or other known vectors, Gutierrez said, but also assist with other emerging military technology designed to genetically gauge how best to treat an infected soldier on the field.

"A critical first step in the process is the accurate identification by field technicians of the vector species from all other insects and arthropods that are caught in the collection traps," Gutierrez said. "We are employing wearable computers with head mounted displays which allow accurate, high-resolution three dimensional models of targeted vector species to be compared with collected specimens."

The research team will present their findings to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the U.S. Army Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit and at the Smithsonian Institution in July. While the first effort with these computers will identify and track mosquito species in North Carolina, researchers envision this low-cost solution will soon be available to reg


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481