Researchers Employ Multiple Disciplines in Study of Vector-Borne Diseases

News & Research

By UM News

Credit a 2011 article in the journal Science for inspiring University of Miami researcher Shigui Ruan to create a mathematical model for the impact of mosquito-borne and sexual transmission on the spread and control of Zika.

That article, “Sex After a Field Trip Yields to Scientific First,” reported on a Colorado State University vector biologist who, after returning from a research trip to Senegal, passed along the Zika virus to his wife in what is believed to be the first documented case of sexual transmission of an insect-borne disease.

Shigui Ruan, professor of mathematics, University of Miami

Shigui Ruan, professor of mathematics, University of Miami

“It [the journal article] really piqued my curiosity,” said Ruan, who recently published the research results of his mathematical model in the journal Scientific Reports.

This isn’t the first time Ruan has used math to investigate vector-borne diseases. Four years ago, he and a colleague proposed a mathematical model to study malaria transmission, determining that the disease can potentially die out if movement of exposed, infectious, or recovered humans between two regions remains weak.

Ruan is part of a consortium of UM researchers in multiple disciplines who have been collaborating for years on different vector-borne studies.

Douglas Fuller, a professor of geography and regional studies, has teamed up with John Beier, a UM Miller School of Medicine professor of public health sciences, on a project in Honduras focusing on the distribution of breeding sites of the Aedes aegypti mosquito—the primary vector for Zika.

Meanwhile, Department of Public Health researchers Diana Naranjo and Whitney Qualls have worked with ministry of health officials in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to implement a new mosquito-control strategy that targets the sugar-feeding behavior of male and female Aedes aegypti.

Other research efforts are focusing on vaccine development and testing. For example, David I. Watkins, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Pathology at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, is collaborating with an infectious disease specialist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, to study the impact of the Zika virus in laboratory animals. With a grant of more than $800,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Watkins is developing a model for rhesus macaques that can guide the development of diagnostic tools, vaccines, and therapies in humans.

And the Miller School’s chief of infectious diseases, Mario Stevenson, has devised a test for the Zika virus that better distinguishes it from dengue and chikungunya, viruses that are currently circulating in Brazil. The test is being evaluated for implementation as a screening tool until an antibody test can be developed.

“We are all looking at similar kinds of questions but through the lenses of different disciplines,” said Chris Cosner, a professor of mathematics who has worked with Ruan on a study focusing on Rift Valley fever in Egypt. “Vector-borne diseases are complicated enough that it’s pretty hard to get a good handle on them with one set of tools. You have to go through a few different disciplines. Biologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, geographers—everybody brings a little different set of tools and insights to the problem.”

Learn more about UM’s vector-borne research at

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