A Festschrift to Honour the Career of Prof. Richard C. Russell

by Stephen Doggett, Department of Medical Entomology, ICPMR, Westmead Hospital.
Richard Russell

Richard at his lab in the late 70's

Haematophagous arthropods are the cause of considerable human morbidity. While the bites from mosquitoes, bed bugs, ticks and other biting are just plain irritating, many of these little blood suckers spread life-threatening diseases that kill millions of people annually worldwide. Knowledge of vector and pathogen biology, the development of highly organised government based health promotion and control programs, and the intelligent application of insecticides and use of repellents, have all helped to minimise the potential for vector borne diseases. However, the risk has certainly not been eliminated as evident by the 5,000 cases of mosquito borne disease within Australia every year. Additionally, there are a number of potential threats that makes the future of these insects and their diseases uncertain. This includes potential funding cuts to government health and mosquito management programs, the decline of entomology teaching at the tertiary level (and the retirement of key researchers), reduced insecticide availability, changes in land use patterns that increases human exposure to vectors, growing world travel and international trade that can aid in the spread of exotic vectors and viruses, and the potential impact of climate change on vector distributions and disease activity.

In some cases, the pest potential of an insect may not be realised until too late. The classic example here is the recent global resurgence of bed bugs, an insect thought to be relegated to history and, until recently, only collectively remembered through a children’s night time nursery rhyme. Fortunately bed bugs do not transmit agents of disease, however the economic impact associated with this pest has cost the world’s economy billions; an unwanted burden in this age of fiscal restraint. The reality is such unexpected happenings are not isolated events. In 2011, Kunjin virus, a mosquito borne virus that historically only occurred in inland regions of the country, crossed the massive geological barrier of the Great Dividing Range. The virus infected hundreds of horses along eastern coastal Australia killing a significant portion of those infected. Will we see in the future the related virus, Murray Valley Encephalitis virus, which is far more pathogenic to humans, cross the same barrier resulting in epidemics in the most populated region of Australia? Or will we see other exotic viruses enter the country as happened with West Nile virus in the USA? Time will tell. The fact is that humans are in a constant struggle against the world around us and we are often humbled by some of the smallest creatures. Yet we must be in a position to meet these challenges.

The symposium ‘Medical Entomology in Australia: Past, Present & Future Concerns’ held at Westmead Hospital on 29th June 2012, reviewed many of the historical and current issues relating to arthropods that impinge on human health, and examined the threats of tomorrow. We were fortunate to have, arguably, the greatest gathering of internationally recognized Australian scientists in the field of Medical Entomology for a one day event. This was reflected in the excellent attendence, with close to 140 registrants from varying fields of expertise.

Richard and Ros Russell

Richard and Ros at his retirement dinner

However, the symposium was not just about arthropods and their diseases. It was held to honour one the leading figures in the fight against these public health pests. Richard Russell, Professor of Medical Entomology, University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital has worked on medically important arthropods for over 40 years and retired on the day of the symposium. He is the author of numerous books on mosquitoes and mosquito borne disease, and published over 200 scientific papers. He has been involved with a multitude of national and international organisations and committees, and is one of the most highly respected figures in the world of medical entomology today. His retirement is seen by all to be a great loss and we will all miss his expertise.

Yet Richard’s work will carry on; in the 25 years of being based at Westmead Hospital, the Department has steadily grown in both size and in the breadth of research programs. Richard has set up a legacy, which most other organisations can only admire. No other medical entomology facility in the country (and possibly the world) has researched such a diverse range of arthropods of medical importance. Currently the Department has numerous and a diverse range of projects including; the provision of disinfected larvae for maggot debridement therapy (the only such service in the nation), efficacy evaluation of insecticides and repellents, the development of industry standards and guidelines for bed bug management (which have been adopted by other nations), and projects relating to mosquito management and biology, to name but a few. Additionally, the core functions that Richard established in 1987 of teaching, arbovirus surveillance, insect identification and insect provision, will continue. For all this, Richard can be rightly proud.

From the staff of Medical Entomology, we wish you and your partner Ros all the best for the future. We will very much miss your guidance, the opportunities you have provided us to make us more rounded researchers and better people, and most of we will miss your friendship. Thank you Richard!

Stephen Doggett

Stephen Doggett will continue in the position of section manager and will now lead the Department.