West Nile Virus has suddenly appeared across the state of Indiana. As of August 25, the Indiana Department of Health reported 225 positive mosquito samples from 60 counties, including Montgomery County. So far, there has only been one case of human infection, located in Johnson County.
Connor Craig ’25 has spent much of his undergraduate research studying West Nile Virus in mosquitoes. The biology major and South Bend native spent the summer of his freshman year studying under the head of vector control for St. Joseph, his home county. This past summer, his research took him closer to his home away from home, where he pursued an internship working with the Montgomery County Health Department. He explained the science behind his research and the current spike.
“During the summer, when the concentration of viral material in mosquitoes that we test for gets to a certain point, our machines are notifying us that there is enough viral concentration to infect a human person,” said Craig. “Fortunately, in Montgomery County, all that was discovered was that mosquitoes tested positive, and there wasn’t a human case.”
Ultimately, while the spike is seemingly alarming at first, Craig stressed that there is no cause for panic. “It’s going to appear inevitably. There’s really no worry for an outbreak.”
While mitigating panic, it is important to understand the underlying causes of why this summer has seen such a wave. 2023 has seen an extraordinary heat wave, breaking a 13 year record for the state of Indiana.
“It is directly affiliated, of course,” said Craig. “Around when orientation was for us, that first week of school, the mosquitoes were everywhere because the heat was really bad. And you can kind of see that correlation with temperatures rising.”
Craig further emphasized the importance of timing in certain global patterns that help scientists learn when to expect West Nile Virus, given that rises in heat are directly correlated to the spread of the virus.
“Across different years, it’s shifting because of things like climate change,” said Craig. “Climate change is easily one of the biggest causes for spikes in West Nile Virus tracking.”
Furthermore, Craig provided context for the threat of the virus year by year, as well as the appropriate response scale.
“In an average summer, you’ll see two cases in big counties,” said Craig. “When I worked at St. [Joseph] County, it was maybe four cases across the entire summer. Things would be a little bit more concerning if it was ten to twenty. If you had more than twenty human cases, then we have a problem on our hands.”
Having worked in two very different public health offices, Craig brings a well rounded and informed perspective to working in viral research. This summer, Craig primarily collected and organized field samples of mosquitoes to be sent to the State.
“It’s very cool to compare rural public health and urban public health,” said Craig. “This summer I worked in the Montgomery County Health Department, which is a big shift compared to South Bend. Freshman year, I would just test [samples] on site in the health department because we had the equipment. There’s a disadvantage with rural public health that you don’t have as much money to be able to do those sorts of things. I know Marion County is really good. In [Indianapolis], they have a $1.3 million vector control budget, but it’s a lot harder for companies like ours, which has like $25,000.”
While the spike seen in Indiana hasn’t come close to becoming a public health emergency, there are still some basic preventative measures you can take to protect yourselves from West Nile Virus, not to mention mosquitoes in general.
“To prevent mosquito bites, wear long sleeves and pants,” said Craig. “Use your deep keratin bug spray or whatever you feel comfortable with.”
The Indiana Department of Health and other health organizations will continue to track and analyze this spike, but for now, citizens have no reason to be alarmed.