Accessibility links

Breaking News

IAEA Fights Sleeping Sickness

One of the most devastating obstacles to development in Africa is the tsetse fly, which causes a sometimes fatal disease in cattle and humans. Experts fear global warming will cause the flies to spread to new areas. But one answer to the problem is being developed in a very unlikely place, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna.

Scientists estimate that about half a million Africans are affected by Nagana, or sleeping sickness, spread by the tsetse fly which feeds on the blood of animals and humans. If left untreated, it leads to a slow and painful death.

A number of African countries try to battle the scourge with insecticides, since there is no vaccine. The African Union's long-term goal is to eradicate the tsetse fly from the continent.

That is a tall order, but new technology is taking its own bite, so to speak, out of the problem - using radiation to sterilize male flies and then releasing them into the wild so they can neutralize fly populations. The technology has been developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which is working in about 14 African countries with plans to expand.

"Unfortunately, it is the poorest countries that are infected. If you have a look at the World Bank map showing the heavily indebted poor countries, there are 34. Thirty-two of them are tsetse infected areas in Africa. So it is really a problem at the root of rural poverty that we are trying to [tackle]," said

Udo Feldmann, an entomologist at the IAEA.

New countries now want to get on board. In fact, Feldmann said, some, like Botswana, specifically joined the IAEA to be able to access the tsetse sterilization program.

But, Feldmann cautions the IAEA's tsetse program is not a silver bullet. "We are not suggesting to use the sterile insect technique for all countries. It has certain advantages against species where other techniques have difficulty. Where, for example, the vegetation is so dense that insecticide applications do not reach the flies. This is where we combine conventional suppression activities with the sterile insect techniques."

The tsetse-infected area of Africa is enormous - more than eight-million square kilometers, about the size of the United States. And global warming, Feldmann said, may cause the flies to spread to new areas.

The IAEA is trying to tackle the flies from what Feldmann describes as the edges of this vast fly belt by breeding them in so-called "fly factories" and releasing them into the wild. One such factory is up and running in Ethiopia and there are plans to build another in Burkina Faso.

Given the size of the problem Feldmann says, researchers are trying to target areas where removing the flies will make the most difference.