November 28, 2009

IAEA To Help Fight African Sleeping Sickness

One of the most devastating obstacles to development in Africa is the tsetse fly, which causes a sometimes fatal disease in cattle and humans. Experts fear global warming will cause the flies to spread to new areas. But one answer to the problem is being developed in a very unlikely place, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna.

The African Union is trying to eradicate the fly from its continent and since there is no vaccination available against the disease a number of countries in Africa are using insecticides to do away with the flies. However the IAEA is planning to use radiation to sterilize the male flies and then release them in Africa so they can neutralize the population of these flies. Currently the IAEA is working in 14 African countries and has plans to expand to more.

The IAEA signed a memorandum of understanding on Wednesday with the African Union, extending cooperation in a range of domains. Work on sleeping sickness follows an effective trial in Zanzibar in the late 1990s.

Sleeping sickness, or trypanosomosis in animals, is a deadly disease found in 35 African countries, where it kills 400,000 people a year, along with some three million head of cattle.

"Unfortunately, it is the poorest countries that are infected. If you have a look at the World Bank map showing the heavily indebted poor countries, there are 34. Thirty-two of them are tsetse infected areas in Africa. So it is really a problem at the root of rural poverty that we are trying to [tackle]," said Udo Feldmann, an entomologist at the IAEA.

New countries now want to get on board. In fact, Feldmann said, some, like Botswana, specifically joined the IAEA to be able to access the tsetse sterilization program.

But, Feldmann cautions the IAEA's tsetse program is not a silver bullet. "We are not suggesting to use the sterile insect technique for all countries. It has certain advantages against species where other techniques have difficulty. Where, for example, the vegetation is so dense that insecticide applications do not reach the flies. This is where we combine conventional suppression activities with the sterile insect techniques."

The tsetse-infected area of Africa is enormous - more than eight-million square kilometers, about the size of the United States. And global warming, Feldmann said, may cause the flies to spread to new areas.

The IAEA is trying to tackle the flies from what Feldmann describes as the edges of this vast fly belt by breeding them in so-called "fly factories" and releasing them into the wild. One such factory is up and running in Ethiopia and there are plans to build another in Burkina Faso.

Given the size of the problem Feldmann says, researchers are trying to target areas where removing the flies will make the most difference.


Image Caption: Sterile male tsetse flies produce no offspring when they mate with female flies. Credit: International Atomic Energy Agency


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