No Budget: Wolbachia Programme Stopped

Mosquito breeding program in 2018. Photo: File

The World Mosquito Programme’s Wolbachia Project that involved introducing a bacterium to the Aedes Aegypti mosquito to render it sterile from Dengue Virus has come to a halt due to lack in financing.

The mosquitoes were given the bacterial strain in 2018 and released in 12 separate locations around Efate in 2019 to infiltrate wild mosquitoes and pass on the strain, narrowing the odds of anyone becoming infected with Dengue virus.

Despite the importance of the programme, it still needs funds to keep the wheels turning. “With limited budget instead of four monitoring phase we have two so when 2021 comes if we have the budget hopefully we must continue the monitoring. In a perfect world it can be even one monitoring per year,” National Vector Surveillance and Control Officer Lekon Tagavi said.

Without a budget no reports are being formulated and what began in 2018 has abruptly stopped. “We don’t monitor, the last monitor was in March, the teams that made the monitoring are the teams inside Malaria unit and other vector borne disease programme, we need a vehicle, field officer, small allowances, fuel, every day we drive around to monitor.”

The process in retrospect is simple, infect mosquitoes in 2018, release them in 2019 and monitor the success come 2020, however, due to the due to an insufficient budget, the monitoring programme stopped in March this year.

However, regardless of the team making zero traction in terms of monitoring, the fruit of the labour over the last two years has started to show.

The last progress report released under the World Mosquito Programme Wolbachia in collaboration with the Ministry of Health detailed positive results of the bacterial spread around Efate, which Ms. Tagavi concurred.

“Wolbachia has progressed.”

Since there isn’t a cure or specific treatment for Dengue virus, the officer under the Ministry of Health emphasized the importance of the programme and the need for it to continue.

“This is important because we are a country in the region that experiences high number of dengue case, dengue we don’t have the medicine for it so the best way to control dengue is to control the vector, which is the mosquito that passes dengue, that is the only thing we can do, we can’t do much because we do not have any treatment for it.”

Proof that Wolbachia has made a widespread effect on Efate is through an analysis of the adult mosquito that will be conducted overseas.

“We set up traps to catch the adult mosquito and then take it to the lab to identify to find out if it is a mosquito that passes dengue, if so then we send those mosquitoes overseas to find out if they have the Wolbachia strain.”

As for a more a more visual indication of the bacteria spreading thoroughly across the Efate, hospitals and clinics will also be monitored.

“If we are really successful, we should see the number of dengue cases go down. In February, out of 12 reporting areas, 11 of them had a very high frequency of mosquitoes carrying Wolbachia, we released them male and female and when the mate they pass it to their offspring.”

With a female mosquito laying 150 eggs after mating, the dispersion rate of the bacterial strain will continue to increase, sterilizing more mosquitoes and keeping more communities safe.

“The monitoring phase that happened from January to March indicated most of the mosquitoes had 40% upwards of the Wolbachia strain and in some areas 100% so we can say that mosquitoes have entered the wild population of the Aedes mosquitoes.”

According to the Ms. Tagavi who is also under the National Malaria and Other Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, across Efate, approximately 80% of mosquitoes have the Wolbachia strain, which is a big win for the team.

“Percentage is 65-80% of mosquitoes in Efate has Wolbachia strain. If the success rate is good, we can apply for more funds, and the other thing is we want to see this program rolled out to other provinces,” Ms. Tagavi said.

Currently the programme is solely focused on 12 different areas in Efate.

“We focused on Efate only, dengue is an urban sickness, so we focused on the urban area first, in Efate we focus on 12 different reporting sites, we started in Mele, Mele Maat and to Erakor and Etas, 12 sites we released mosquitoes that has Wolbachia inside, after that monitoring phase is at the 12 sites.”

Once the monitoring programme is completed, the Vector Surveillance Officer stated that Santo would likely be the next destination for Wolbachia.

“There is Lenakel and Santo, but Santo has a high number of dengue cases and it is an urban setting.”

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