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Successful Swarm of 'Special Mosquitoes' Could Tackle 3 Deadly Diseases

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Mosquito-borne diseases include Zika virus, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, and malaria. Efforts to eliminate these diseases are key to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 on good health and well-being for all. You can take action here.

Special mosquitoes deployed in Townsville, Queensland, a city in northern Australian, have successfully stopped dengue fever outbreaks for the last four years.

A large batch of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria, making it impossible for them to spread viruses, were released over 66 square kilometres in the city, specifically in areas where breeding could naturally occur, according to the Guardian.

The researchers reported that there have been no new cases in the last four rainy seasons since the mosquitoes were released.

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“I’m ecstatic,” Scott O’Neill, director of the World Mosquito Program at Monash University who led the research, told the Guardian. “After a long slog in my career in doing this, I think this is a piece of work I’m really quite proud of because it really shows we’ll be able to take this all the way, I think.”

O’Neill says there is lab data that indicates this technique could also be used to tackle malaria someday. There is also hope for this to put an end to the Zika virus in Brazil — mosquitoes have been released into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the Guardian reported.

This news comes less than a month after it was announced that more than 80% of mosquitoes carrying diseases had been wiped out across three locations in North Queensland, Australia after a different successful experiment.

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Using mosquitoes to stop dengue fever could mean big things for global health security.

“We’re wanting to have a really major impact on disease. For dengue and Zika nothing’s working at the moment for control. There’s evidence of a growing disease burden and there was the big Zika pandemic that stripped through the Americas recently and the rest of the world,” O’Neill said. “Nothing we’ve got is slowing these diseases down – they are getting worse. I think we’ve got something here that’s going to have a significant impact and I think this study is the first indication that it’s looking very promising.”

The outcomes of this test will be published on the Gates Open Research site, with the next planned test set to take place in Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

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In Indonesia, O’Neill and his team will compare city areas with deployed Wolbachia mosquitoes and others without to track disease burden in each region, which will offer information on the effectiveness of the project, the Guardian reported.

This concept is now being put to use in 11 other countries, including Brazil.

“Rio is one of the hardest places to work in,” O’Neill said. “The favelas are quite a challenge. If we can be successful in Rio we can probably be successful anywhere in the world.”

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There are 187,000 people living in Townsville. The cost was AUD $15 (about USD $11) per person for the project, but the team now hopes to bring the cost down to USD $1 per person in cities in lower-income countries of the world.

The area targeted in Rio is double the size of Townsville, with a population of more than 1.5 million people, according to the Guardian.

Mosquito-borne diseases range from Zika and dengue fever to West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, and malaria, and can all lead to serious outbreaks, like the Zika outbreak in 2015.

A project like this could essentially help put an end to significant outbreaks of devastating diseases around the world, including malaria and Zika, if proven safe and effective.