The Organization of African Unity, the OAU, is launching a new campaign to rid Africa of the tsetse fly, which spreads sleeping sickness through much of the continent.
It’s estimated that sleeping sickness currently affects at least 500-thousand people - and is expected to kill 80-percent of them. As many as 60 million people are at risk. The disease infects animals as well, killing three million livestock in Africa each year. Economic losses are estimated at four billion dollars annually.
The bite of the tsetse fly transmits the trypanosome parasite, which attacks the blood and nervous system of its victims. Drugs used to prevent or treat sleeping sickness are highly toxic. And attempts to develop a vaccine have failed because the parasite easily mutates and is able to hide from the body’s immune system.
The new campaign against the tsetse fly uses a method called the Sterile Insect Technique, or S-I-T. Hundreds of thousands of male flies are released into the environment after first being made sterile by a burst of gamma radiation. After they mate, the tsetse eggs fail to develop.
S-I-T is a joint effort by the OAU, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Peter Salema – a deputy director with the Agency in Vienna – says the tsetse is a root cause of poverty. He says it prevents farmers from producing large quantities of food by killing draught animals, such as horses and oxen.
He said, "I call it the root of poverty because these farmers only rely on farming for their livelihood for food – and what they produce from farming - animal products and crops – to get other essentials of life like cooking oil, kerosene for lighting, clothes, sending kids to school, school fees and things like that."
A U-N study in Zimbabwe has found that farmers who use animals to cultivate their land were able to produce much more food than those who tilled the soil by hand.
Mr. Salema says little headway was made against the tsetse fly until 1997 when the Sterile Insect Technique eliminated the pest from the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. He explained, "The other techniques, which have been used for over a hundred years are techniques cannot eliminate the fly. It is the use of pesticides. With those techniques we cannot eliminate the fly. But the nuclear technique – the Sterile Insect Technique – enables you to solve the problem once and for all."
The current epidemic of sleeping sickness began in the 1970’s and now affects 37 sub-Saharan African countries, especially in the river valley areas. The campaign to eliminate the pest is expected to take many years.