In today, immune tomorrow, but what’s next?

Just as we won funding to develop BiteBytes in 2016, images of babies deformed by zika surfaced in Brazil. The rapid rise of zika, which can cause neurological damage including microcephaly, in Latin America, notably in Polynesian islands in 2013 and spreading to the southern United States by the fall of 2016, alarmed many Americans to the dangers of Aedes mosquitoes1. By 2017, zika largely receded from the news2, as cases throughout Latin America plummeted3, likely due to exposure in 2016 and resulting herd immunity.


Red indicates probable presence of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Source: The New York Times | Source: Moritz U. G. Kraemer et al., eLife Sciences; Simon Hay, University of Oxford

The number of Zika vaccine tweets and tweets with pseudo-scientific claims coincides for 7 day periods for the first 49 days of 2016. (Source: Dredze, Mark et al, <em>Vaccine</em>)

Source: Dredze, Broniatowski, & Hilyard, 2016

While people develop immunity to zika, thus halting the spread of serious infections, immunity to West Nile virus develops more slowly. West Nile has an avian-mosquito-vertebrate life cycle, transmitted between birds (often sparrows), mosquitoes (mostly Culexgenus), and humans. Similar to zika, when West Nile first came to the US in 19994, many feared the dangerous infections, which arise in about 1 out of every 150 people infected5. Although zika transmission has mostly stopped, West Nile continues to infect people throughout the US each year; last year infections were reported in 47 states5.

Map of the United States showing WNV Human disease cases.


The news will always feature new stories, so last year’s infections don’t make the headlines, and recede from people’s worries. We shouldn’t let concern about the common factor –mosquitoes—escape our attention and efforts at control. Vector-borne diseases more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, although much of the rise was due to ticks not mosquitoes6. We’re lucky so far to mostly avoid Dengue, malaria, and many other mosquito-borne diseases, thanks to environmental management, rapid access to health care, and human-mosquito barriers like screens. Still, everyone can take care of their own yard (, and work together to limit mosquitoes in public spaces. Plus, you can report mosquitoes to your local environmental health office (most cities have one) and report mosquitoes using citizen science initiatives like BiteBytes.


  2. Dredze, M., Broniatowski, D. A., & Hilyard, K. M. (2016). Zika vaccine misconceptions: A social media analysis. Vaccine, 34(30), 3441–3442.
  4. Lanciotti, R. S. (1999). Origin of the West Nile Virus Responsible for an Outbreak of Encephalitis in the Northeastern United States. Science, 286(5448), 2333–2337.
  6. Rosenberg, R., Lindsey, N. P., Fischer, M., Gregory, C. J., Hinckley, A. F., Mead, P. S., … Petersen, L. R. (2018). Vital Signs : Trends in Reported Vectorborne Disease Cases — United States and Territories, 2004–2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67(17), 496–501.

Track mosquitoes with your Smartphone

During my first summer in New York City, mosquitoes bit me mercilessly. Eventually I learned which parks and gardens to avoid, but I was struck by the large geographic variation in mosquito prevalence. Interested whether the city made any data about mosquitos publically available, I learned that the city only had 52 permanent mosquito traps, roughly one per 6 square miles (for reference, the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Central Park combined take up less than 5 square miles). Moreover, the majority of the trapping locations in NYC are within parks. Vector control officials either do not have the resources or the legal authority to trap mosquitoes in many locations, particularly homeowner backyards.

The annoyance of mosquito bites, combined with the serious threat they pose as vectors of infectious diseases, led me to wonder what could be done. Mosquito control requires active citizen engagement to monitor standing water, open containers, and remove litter. I remembered reading about the brigadistas in Nicaragua, a public health group and campaign that taught community leaders to work with their neighbors to eliminate mosquito breeding habitat (the brigadistas produced graphics, such as the one below). When the Earth Institute of Columbia University put out a request for proposals for smartphone applications to engage citizen scientists, I quickly pulled together my ideas for an app to report mosquito activity, and applied with Professor Jeffrey Shaman and PhD student Eliza Little. Once funded, Eliza tapped the talented Matt Brennan to implement our vision.

Above: Graphics from anti-malaria campaign: “These are breeding sites of mosquitoes” [1].

Introducing BiteBytes

We created a smartphone application called BiteBytes as a tool for citizens to report mosquito activity. Community participation using the smart phone app can help supplement expensive mosquito trapping. Crowd-sourced mosquito identification can be an additional source of information for monitoring and forecasting mosquito abundance anywhere that user engagement is high. Data generated from the app would allow cities to target key areas reduce mosquito abundance, and thus control the potential for the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. In addition to gathering data and enhancing the city mosquito-monitoring network, the app can be used to educate the public on mosquitoes, the diseases mosquitoes transmit, and mosquito habitat control. We hope people will feel empowered by reporting mosquitoes and contributing to data collection in their city or county.

How you can use BiteBytes

You can download BiteBytes from iTunes or Google Play! In the first screen, you can select the mosquito that most resembles the one bothering you (or select unknown). Next, additional information can be added. A heat map will show all reporting activity, information about mosquitoes in the northeastern US, and how to control mosquitoes. The more mosquitos you report, the more status you accrue within BiteBytes.

Above: Screenshots of BiteBytes beta version. This heat map does not reflect actual mosquito prevalence!

Hopes for Bitebytes

User-generated electronic data streams are increasingly incorporated into models of infectious diseases. Many user-generated data streams of infectious diseases are passive (through twitter posts or Wikipedia searches); here citizens will need to download an app onto their smartphone and actively use it. Citizen monitoring for mosquitoes can be successfully implemented, however, and other mobile application reporting systems have been used in Nicaragua and Brazil [2], Europe [3], and Canada [4].

With public awareness of mosquito vectors and participation to decrease the number of these vectors, we can counter the public health risks of mosquito-borne diseases, while improving residents’ quality of life and use of parks. Given the heightened awareness of mosquito-borne diseases due to the Zika outbreak, public uptake is likely to be high. Together with Eliza, Matt, and Jeff, we are excited to use the bitebytes platform to engage with end users, both vector control and the public, on issues regarding surveillance, risk of infectious disease, and education!


  1. Garfield RM, Vermund SH. Health education and community participation in mass drug administration for malaria in Nicaragua. Soc Sci Med. 1986;22: 869–877. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(86)90241-8
  2. Coloma J, Suazo H, Harris E, Holston J. Dengue chat: A novel web and cellphone application promotes community-based mosquito vector control. Ann Glob Heal. Elsevier; 2016;82: 451. doi:10.1016/j.aogh.2016.04.244
  3. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Guidelines for the surveillance of native mosquitoes in Europe. Technical report. 2014. Available at Accessed 4/26/2016.
  4. McLeod, B. Experimental Social Media Marketing. 2103. Youtube video: Accessed 4/26/2016.