WHO announces plan to sterilise male mosquitoes

Mosquito used to illustrate the story. Photo: WebMD
Mosquito used to illustrate the story. Photo: WebMD

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced plans to test a mosquito sterilisation technique aimed at containing the spread of diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

The Sterile Insect Technique, a form of “birth control” for mosquitoes and other deadly insects, has been used to tackle invasive pests in the past. It was first developed by the United States Department of Agriculture and has been used successfully to target insects that attack crops and livestock, especially the Mediterranean fruit fly and the New World screwworm fly. It is now being used across the world to boost agriculture.

The UN health agency said it had recently observed that the technique could prove successful in controlling some species of mosquito from spreading diseases amongst humans.

“The process involves rearing large quantities of sterilised male mosquitoes in dedicated facilities, and then releasing them to mate with females in the wild,” WHO said in the November 14 announcement. “As they do not produce any offspring, the insect population declines over time.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have partnered with WHO to develop a pilot programme for countries interested in using the technique to test the impact on disease transmission.

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Malaria, dengue, Zika, chikungunya and other related fevers account for about 17 per cent of all infectious diseases globally, WHO said, claiming more than 700,000 lives yearly with far greater number suffering infections.

A spokesperson for WHO did not immediately return a PREMIUM TIMES’ email seeking comment about when the programme would commence and whether there are future plans to deploy it against vicious mosquitoes ravaging tropical Africa.

WHO said it has become necessary to find a lasting solution to reducing or eradicating mosquitoes as disease vendors as half of the world population is at risk of dengue.

“Half the world’s population is now at risk of dengue,” Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said during the announcement. “And despite our best efforts, current efforts to control it are falling short.”

“We desperately need new approaches and this initiative is both promising and exciting,” the official added.

In recent decades, cases of dengue have increased due to environmental changes, unregulated urbanisation and transport, amidst insufficient sustainable vector control tools and their application.

Dengue outbreaks are still being reported in several parts of the world, notably on the Indian sub-continent.

Bangladesh has been facing the worst dengue outbreak since its first recorded epidemic in 2000. The country has become one of the earliest countries to express interest in testing the mosquito sterilisation technique, WHO said.

Zika outbreak in Brazil was linked to an increase in the number of babies being born with microcephaly (a condition that shrinks a newborn’s head) since 2015.

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