Nuclear technology to fight mosquito bite diseases causing over a million deaths per year

At a time when health services the world over are under tremendous strain to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there has emerged good news on the front of combating another major global health menace — the scourge of mosquito-borne diseases, which take a heavy toll in the developing world. The Indian subcontinent has been particularly impacted by the loss of mandays due to sickness, as well as by lives lost, owing to diseases like chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever caused by mosquito bites, while there is the recent example of large scale devastation in Africa wrought by Zika.

With mosquitoes become increasingly resistant to insecticides, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed last month that many governments around the world are now considering alternative forms of mosquito control, including the use of nuclear techniques that have the added advantage of being environment friendly.

Last month witnessed the release of what is called the Guidance Framework for Testing the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) as a Vector Control Tool against Aedes-Borne Diseases, which is a product collaboration between the IAEA, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Special Programme for Training and Research of Tropical Diseases (TDR) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). This document has been prepared with the involvement of 15 experts from twelve countries, and will serve as guidance for governments interested in using the SIT technique. The project was jointly financed by the TDR, the WHO and the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme and Peaceful Uses Initiative.

According to the IAEA’s release on the subject “the guidelines will facilitate the implementation of both research and operational programs.”

The SIT, or Sterile Insect Technique, is an insect birth control method whereby radiation is used to sterilise male mosquitoes, which are then released to mate with wild females resulting, thereby, in no offspring. Over time this leads to a decline in the mosquito population and in the diseases they carry.

SIT is an environmentally friendly technique to gradually lessen the transmission of Aedes mosquito-borne diseases. According to the IAEA, this is a species-specific form of insect control, initially invented to control agricultural pests such as tsetse and fruit flies, which avoids risking other species and ecosystems.

“One of the great values of this guide is that it harmonizes the SIT approach and its application for all IAEA member states who are interested in adding an environmentally friendly tool to their tool kit to reduce the vector that carries diseases,” said Patricia Godoy-Kain, the IAEA’s Programme Management Officer who has experience in overseeing a related project in Latin America and the Caribbean.

SIT has historically been used against agricultural pests that attack crops and livestock. The IAEA and the FAO, through their joint Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, has been providing technical support to over 60 countries in implementing the SIT, which has now been adapted for use against Aedes mosquitoes.

The Guidance document released last month guides experts on how to fight diseases such as chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever and Zika, which cause over a million deaths every year. It outlines how a programme can be initiated, first through a pilot phase, so that decisions can be made on whether or not to implement the technique in the affected areas of a particular country. The document also offers guidance on engaging communities, ensuring cost-effectiveness and carrying out effective programme monitoring and evaluation.

Through an IAEA technical cooperation project, the SIT technique against Aedes mosquitoes was recently implemented for the first time in Greece which is considered a high-risk zone for diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.