Not pests, but sources of information: A mosquito analyst's work in the fight against dengue
SINGAPORE: While most see mosquitoes as pests, 28-year-old Janet Ong views the tiny insects as sources of information.
“The two most common reactions I get when I tell people that I’m a mosquito analyst - the first is that they will think I’m an officer that goes around inspecting for mosquito breeding,” she told CNA. “The other is that they will ask: ‘Why do you analyse mosquitoes of all things? Mosquitos are so small, why is there a need to analyse them?’
“For my friends they will (eventually) understand when I have explained, but for the older generation, data analytics is quite foreign to them so they don’t really understand.”
A mosquito analyst for the National Environment Agency (NEA), Ms Ong plays an important part in Singapore’s fight against dengue. As part of a four member team, she makes use of information collected on the ground such as as the density of the local mosquito population. Such data is keyed into analytical models which helps to translate the information into insights which the NEA can act on.
These insights into dengue risk areas can provide early warnings of a potential outbreak and factors into the NEA’s updates to the public on the current dengue situation. Findings are also used to guide the NEA’s resource planning allocation, such as where it deploys dengue inspection officers.
“We have to first identify what are the risk factors that could influence dengue, then these factors will form the building blocks for our model to predict the dengue case trend for the next few weeks,” explained Ms Ong, who works at NEA's Environmental Health Institute.
When it comes monitoring mosquito population, the NEA’s network of Gravitraps come in handy, said Ms Ong. Gravitraps are designed to attract and trap female Aedes mosquitoes looking for sites to lay their eggs.
“These traps will be inspected bi-weekly and the mosquitoes trapped there will be collected and brought back to the lab for identification of species,” said Ms Ong. “With that we know, in this area, how many female aedes aegypti were caught. Then we can derive an index and compare it across the different areas so we can know which area has higher mosquito population than the others … It provides a signal to alert us of areas that are high risk.”
Weather data as well as human population statistics also factor into the NEA’s models.
A DESIRE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
A graduate from the National University of Singapore’s faculty of Science, Ms Ong has been in this role for close to five years.
“I majored in statistics so a career as an analyst has been my ideal choice because I wanted to utilise my knowledge and the analytical skills that I acquired to help derive insights from data, support decision making and make a difference to people’s lives,” she said. “This job is more interesting because it's about dengue and not many people specialise in the field of dengue.
"So I wanted to try something new. This job could also make a positive difference because Singapore is endemic for dengue, we have dengue cases all year round.”
While Ms Ong does not have a fixed routine - her job is very much project based - she spends most of her time in the office crunching data and running statistical analysis. But she does not mind being desk-bound.
“I enjoy the steep learning curve that comes with my job, although its generally desk bound, I am constantly faced with new challenges that require me to explore and experiment with new analytical methods,” she said.
“For example, there could be some hypothesis that we want to solve but we can’t solve it using our current analytical methods so we have to explore new ways of answering the hypothesis, to investigate whether the hypothesis is true or not.”
With dengue cases on the rise this year, Ms Ong's work remains all the more important.
More than 6,500 dengue cases reported so far this year, more than double that in the same period in 2019. The number of dengue cases in 2020 is projected to surpass 2019's figure, unless "immediate measures" are taken, the NEA had said in a previous news release.
NEA added that weekly figures remain high - around 300 to 400 cases - and these continue to be a public health concern.
"With the imminent threat of another dengue outbreak this year, my output has helped NEA to facilitate appropriate and timely public health response on the ground," said Ms Ong.
"Mosquitoes are important to me because its what I work on ... They are important sources (of information) because they can help us to identify areas that are at high risk of dengue transmission."