LONDON — A scientist from Burkina Faso has won an award from Britain’s Royal Society for his research on new ways to target mosquito swarms responsible for the spread of malaria. Scientists say it’s vital to develop new tools to tackle the disease as both the malarial parasite, and the mosquitoes that carry it, are developing resistance to existing drugs and insecticides.
The research by Dr. Abdoulaye Diabate focused on the reproductive patterns of male mosquitoes - and his findings have caught the attention of scientists around the world.
“The important thing about this mating system is that whenever you go into a field site, you will find mosquito swarms at the same place every single day. This kind of makes it really very easy to target, to tackle these mosquitoes and see how you can just reduce mosquito density,” said Diabate.
Burkina Faso has one of the highest rates of malaria in the world. Diabate found that during the rainy season in Burkina Faso, some houses contained 900 mosquitoes. He said the discovery that the insects swarm together to mate in the same place year in, year out presents an opportunity to disrupt breeding patterns.
“So if you can succeed in killing the male, what will happen is that you will have a strong bias in male-female ratio. So you will have more females than males. And because the female needs the male to mate, then to be able to lay eggs, so if there is no male, no mating, no eggs, no mosquitoes. And in this case, no malaria,” he said.
The research opens the door for new malaria control technologies, such as engineered mosquitoes and sterile insect techniques.
Diabate will receive $95,000 toward his research as part of the 2013 Royal Society Pfizer Award.
Professor Sir Brian Greenwood of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a member of the award selection committee, said, “So far, we’ve relied very much on using insecticide-treated bed nets. But there are concerns of resistance to the insecticides that are used for treating nets. And so really developing novel ways of controlling malaria vectors in very important.”
Despite scientific advances, malaria kills an estimated 660,000 people every year - most of them children.
Next year, the British firm GlaxoSmithKline plans to submit an application to market the world’s first malaria vaccine, known as RTS,S. The World Health Organization says it could be rolled out by 2015. Greenwood has helped to develop the drug.
“It probably gives about 50 percent protection in older children for perhaps three or four years. Unfortunately, it’s less effective in the very young ones who we want to protect. And 50 percent is not 100 percent which is what we would like. But it is a step in the right direction,” said Greenwood.
Meanwhile, Diabate said he hopes winning the prize will inspire researchers across Africa to focus on ways of tackling malaria.