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Fly on the Wall: Interview with a Bug Expert

Image of Maj. Elizabeth Foley, a U.S. Air Force entomologist and bug expert, is chief of the force health branch at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. Foley, in a makeshift lab, is looking for mosquitos and mosquito larvae in a water sample. (Photo: Air Force Maj. Elizabeth Foley). Maj. Elizabeth Foley, a U.S. Air Force entomologist and bug expert, is chief of the force health branch at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. Foley, in a makeshift lab, is looking for mosquitos and mosquito larvae in a water sample. (Photo: Air Force Maj. Elizabeth Foley)

Air Force Maj. Elizabeth Foley, an entomologist and bug expert, is chief of the force health branch at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

In an interview for Bug Week 2023, happening June 10-17, Foley described the role of entomologists across the Military Health System as they work to control diseases carried by bugs, or vectors, that can be transmitted to humans. The entomologists’ work ensures readiness of the military force.

MHS Communications: What are the most important types of work entomologists in the MHS do, whether in the field or a lab?

Foley: Entomologists fill a variety of roles within the services to include research, education, consulting, and contingency operations. In the U.S. Air Force, a contingent of reserve entomologists are responsible for the Department of Defense’s aerial application of pesticides. At the Air Force Research Laboratory, our entomology consult team identifies vectors submitted from bases across the globe and tested for diseases.

The Naval Entomology Center of Excellence provides cutting-edge research on equipment and materiel for the DOD. The U.S. Army conducts research, education and directly supports contingency environments. These are all just a fraction of what each of the services bring to the fight, and they are all extremely valuable. The Armed Forces Pest Management Board is a great joint resource for topics related to entomology and vector management.

MHS Communications: How do entomologists support mission readiness?

Foley: In many locations, vector-borne diseases pose a serious threat to operational missions. In deployed environments, some teams have very specific skills and requirements. If one or two members go down with diseases such as dengue or malaria, it could mean failure for the mission.

Our job as entomologists is to make sure the joint forces are equipped with the knowledge and protective measures to prevent disease. Entomologists directly support deployed locations by assessing the risk of vector-borne disease and providing mitigation strategies for identified threats.

Since there are few entomologists in relation to other career fields, they often act as consultants to a specific theater or area of responsibility. Entomologists are considered the subject matter experts on everything from monkey bites, to venomous snakes, to zoonotic [animal transmission] and insect-borne diseases.

MHS Communications: What are some of the most significant issues of late identified by military entomologists?

Foley: Scientists and entomologists are working on finding better solutions for personal protection. This could be researching new environmentally friendly repellent applications or refining spatial repellent capabilities, which release chemicals into the air to prevent mosquitoes from biting humans within a given space.

It is a big effort. We need to think about the future fight and leaner, more mobile forces. This means we may not have the ability to provide traditional pest management applications. Keeping this in mind, we are working on how to best support and protect the warfighter from these vector-borne diseases.

MHS Communications: What are some of the prime preventive measures—especially if there is no vaccine—other than insecticides, protective clothing, and awareness?

Foley: The reality is we do not have vaccines for most vector-borne diseases. To make matters worse, in deployed locations, we may not even have pesticide capability. In these cases, we rely heavily on personal protection and education.

For example, if we know a particular mosquito is active at dusk and dawn, we can limit our activities during that time. Conversely, if we know the mosquito is a day-biter, we can emphasize the use of repellents and protective clothing. Additionally, we can provide research and pull data prior to arrival at a site, equipping commanders with the knowledge of existing threats.

MHS Communications: What’s on the horizon for DHA entomologists?

Foley: Fortunately, the joint service entomologists have an incredible relationship with each other and the Armed Forces Pest Management Board. I imagine falling under the DHA will only strengthen those relationships as we try to create solutions to common problems for our military and the nation.

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Last Updated: September 06, 2023
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