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MSU seeks solutions as Colorado sees West Nile cases, deaths

'Mosquito Man' Dr. Robert Hancock
Posted at 9:34 PM, Sep 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-23 08:54:41-04

DENVER — An 80-year-old resident of Weld County died from West Nile virus after being hospitalized, county officials announced Thursday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least five other deaths in Colorado from West Nile virus this year, following a particularly active and deadly season in 2021.

Health officials in Weld County want to remind residents to dress in long sleeves and pants and use insect repellents with DEET. While serious and deadly cases of West Nile are rare, there are no medications or vaccines currently developed for the virus.

An entire lab at Metropolitan State University in Denver has dedicated itself to better understanding mosquito behavior, and how humans can best adapt to them and prevent diseases they spread. It’s led by Dr. Robert G. Hancock, a professor of biology, who has gained the nickname of “Mosquito Man” from his students and colleagues. He has earned this nickname, in part, by willingly allowing hundreds of mosquitoes to feed on blood from his hands each week so they can lay eggs and hatch more mosquitoes for his lab.

Mosquitoes swarm hand
Mosquitoes swarm the hand of Dr. Robert Hancock, professor of biology at MSU Denver

“So what I’m feeling is a lot of tiny, very mild, little pricks,” Hancock laughed, has hundreds of hungry mosquitoes swarmed his hands. “If you pay the price, and you feed mosquitoes time and time and time again, with great repetition, your immune system will essentially go through its course of resistance to the point where you are no longer responding to mosquito spit. So I don’t have an immune response against this species of mosquitoes anymore.”

It’s a sight to behold, and Hancock seems to thoroughly enjoy this form of hands-on research. Even still, he knows how deadly serious West Nile virus can be and how important further research is.

“In 2007, my brother living in Phoenix, Arizona, became one of the first West Nile neuroinvasive cases in the state that year,” Hancock recalled. “He had some long-term problems, especially with his swallow mechanism… He’s still alive and well today, but West Nile can pack a powerful punch — short of the most powerful punch, which of course is that you die.”

2021 saw a 120% increase in cases from the previous five year average, according to MSU Denver. One hundred and one people developed serious neuroinvasive cases, and 11 people died. As Hancock explained, Colorado is becoming more hospitable for the specific mosquito, Culex tarsalis that can carry the West Nile virus.

“We have modified our habitat in the name of growing crops with irrigation. We’ve created a high desert into irrigation land, and it’s the irrigation land that those mosquitoes breed in,” Hancock said. “You can see a correlation between high irrigation in the state of Colorado, and high rates of West Nile virus in humans.”

The Culex tarsalis mosquito is most active at dawn, at dusk and after dusk. If you are outside at those times, you should apply bug spray containing DEET and wear long sleeves and pants that are lightly colored.

Hancock expects Colorado to see West Nile cases ebb and flow for years to come. In the meantime, he and his students are working every day to learn how we can better protect people from the virus, and from other insect-transmitted diseases.