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RISE and World Mosquito Program enlist mosquitoes in fight against disease

29 January 2020

Mosquitoes are part of everyday life in informal settlements in Fiji. Stagnant pools of water, rainwater-filled containers and homes provide an abundance of breeding sites.

One small bite carries a big threat, spreading diseases like dengue, Zika and chikungunya that spread quickly and can have devastating health consequences for entire communities and countries across the Pacific.

But these dangerous vectors are also the key connection point of a unique partnership between two research programs: RISE and the World Mosquito Program (WMP) are both working towards a healthier world, and both rely on mosquitoes to get there.

RISE Postdoctoral Associate Dr Peter Faber and former WMP Pacific Program Manager Geoff Wilson (pictured above) share a passion for coastal marine ecosystems, and have been working together on mosquito projects for a few years.

‘I worked for several years as a research assistant with WMP,’ Peter shares. ‘So, I understand WMP’s aims, and I’m familiar with many of the people and processes’.

As Geoff puts it, ‘Ultimately we are both striving for the same goal of improving health for the communities we work with’.

How the partnership works

Both RISE and WMP have been working in Fiji’s high dengue-burdened capital Suva since 2017. RISE is monitoring the changing health of the physical environment in informal settlements with a sustainable infrastructure intervention, to assess what impact this has on a community’s health.

‘Part of our assessment of the ecology of informal settlements is understanding vectors in these environments. That means trapping mosquitoes to monitor population sizes and species that are present in these communities,’ Peter explains.

RISE mosquito samples from Fiji.

‘RISE is trapping and identifying mosquitoes and, as we do not currently have a further use for the samples, we offer them to WMP’.

WMP is breeding and releasing mosquitoes that carry Wolbachia bacteria – a naturally occurring bacteria that blocks the transmission of several viruses.

WMP analyses the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes collected by RISE to monitor Wolbachia levels within the local population.

The impacts

Wolbachia levels have reached a sustainable level in these Fiji sites, meaning further releases of mosquitoes are no longer required.

While still early days, the prospect of contributing to WMP monitoring excites Peter. ‘It will be really interesting to see how the Wolbachia frequency progresses in Suva following WMP’s widespread deployment and how the communities we work with may be positively impacted by this promising technology.

Results like this also fuel Geoff’s feelings that innovative partnerships are key for effective and integrated public health strategies. RISE and WMP share the same NGO partner in Suva: Live & Learn Environmental Education spearheads the implementation of both programs on the ground through their local staff.

Building local capacity is essential, as both programs aim to be self-sustaining for lasting impact in the countries in which they operate. Having the same NGO involved in multiple programs also increases efficiency for local organisations, rather than burdening a plethora of NGOs with work that overlaps.

Community release of Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes in Fiji.

The greater good of collaboration

While turf wars and competition between research groups and non-profits can arise over access to study sites and funding, Geoff insists goodwill and trust have thrived between RISE and WMP.

‘There has been absolutely no tension. We’ve focused on learning about each other’s projects and people, and developing systems where we can share our resources’.

For Peter, it’s about efficiency, but also working towards a greater good. ‘I’m glad that we can work together by sharing our samples. Personally, I want to see the Wolbachia method succeed in Fiji and elsewhere, and a small, isolated city like Suva with a high dengue burden is an ideal proving ground.’