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Using the Atom To Fight Malaria - 2003-10-23

The International Atomic Energy Agency is using nuclear technology in a project designed to eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes from Africa.

One of the jobs of the I-A-E-A, besides hunting for banned nuclear weapons, is promoting peaceful uses of atomic energy.

"Atoms for peace," as the program is called, was originally an idea of U-S President Eisenhower who suggested it in 1953. The International Atomic Energy Agency itself was founded four-years later.

In its malaria project, I-A-E-A scientists are doing tests in northern Sudan and on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, aimed at wiping out mosquitoes carrying malaria.

The male insects are transported to laboratories at Seibersdorf, near Vienna, and there they are sterilized by being exposed to large doses of gamma radiation.

Alan Robinson heads the research at Seibersdorf.

"It is a method, which uses sterility as a sort of birth control for insects, so the principle is to, in a large facility, to rear large numbers of insects, to sterilize them with radiation and release them in the field. If those released insects fertilize or mate with insects in the field they sterilize them."

Scientists say repeated releases should eventually lead to eradication of the malaria-carrying mosquito. The technique, they say, is more effective than insecticides.

The I-A-E-A used similar methods to rid Zanzibar of the tse-tse fly, which carries sleeping sickness. The last tse-tse fly was caught on the island in 1996.

The five-year malaria project, financed mainly by the United States and France, is expected to deliver huge benefits to countries infected with malaria. The United Nations says, in Ethiopia alone, 15-million people face the threat of dying from malaria before the end of the year.