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Sterile, non-biting mosquitoes could ‘debug Louisiana,’ research points to

Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 9:36 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2022 at 10:06 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In the next months, Louisiana residents will endure the annual onslaught of mosquitoes.

Parishes will spend millions trying to control the problem, along with the diseases mosquitoes often carry. But there’s a program launched in California that could revolutionize mosquito control. It’s a chemical-free plan that made neighborhoods in Fresno mosquito-free.

It’s a plan that could one day help with the “Debugging of Louisiana.”

In a laboratory overlooking Tulane Avenue, researchers work with insects most of us try to avoid.

Doctors at Tulane’s school of tropical medicine, the oldest such school in the country, have tackled deadly mosquito-borne diseases for nearly 150 years. They also monitor the latest developments in how to control them.

“Aedes Aegypti is one of our problem mosquitos here and it’s been here historically. It was our yellow fever and dengue vector and that’s why they were targeting it there,” said Tulane’s Dr. Dawn Wesson.

The researchers keep tabs on a program developed in California’s fifth-largest city called “Debug Fresno.”

“Us, along with some leading researchers, saw this as an opportunity to control an invasive species which wasn’t here prior to 2013,” said Jodi Holeman with the Fresno Mosquito District.

The program, developed with the help of a Google-owned company called Verily, achieved a sizable reduction in mosquitoes across a large part of Fresno, by mass producing, then spreading nearly 50 million sterile male ‘Aedes Aegypti’ mosquitoes across neighborhoods, using specialized vans, and a mass media campaign.

The male mosquitoes, do not bite. They were sterilized by being infected with a common bacteria called Wolbachia.

“When these males carry that bacteria and mate with females that did not have the bacteria that resulted in sterility. We wound up targeting 6,000 homes in a certain area and targeting pockets,” said Holeman.

The results, involving a species common in New Orleans, were startling.

“In one neighborhood, we achieved a 98% suppression,” said Holeman.

Local mosquito control experts were intrigued by the three-year program, 2,000 miles away.

“There are a lot of really cool technologies coming out to manage mosquitoes this Wolbachia sterile insect technology is one of the many tools that are on the horizon,” said Dr.Jennifer Breaux, with New Orleans Mosquito Control.

But there are pitfalls. It’s expensive to mass-produce, separate out male mosquitoes, and then sterilize them. And to be fully effective, it has to be done on an ongoing basis.

“They were never able to completely eradicate the population even in these large blocks they were working in,” said Wesson.

Though Tulane is not involved in any Fresno-type sterile mosquito programs they have been involved in Mosquito research all over the world.

Tulane tropical health doctors developed a trap that captured female mosquitoes in South America and used them to successfully control Dengue, a tropical illness that can produce high fever and sometimes death.

“Over a two-year period of time we were able to reduce dengue spread considerably,” said Wesson.

Mosquito populations are constantly on the move and that technology, along with the sterile insect technique used in Fresno, requires constant diligence.

“That’s a known weakness of this technology and the problem is that you still have mosquitoes immigrating in from outside areas that have not been mated with these males that have Wolbachia,” said Wesson.

But in spite of challenges, Fresno mosquito officials believe the sterile mosquito program has merit because it can alleviate chemical spraying, which can be harmful to the environment, and to other insects like honeybees or butterflies. they say the results of their three-year trial were impressive, and say, it’s one Fresno would like to continue, in tandem, with other control techniques.

“Anyone that works in Mosquito Control really feels that this is the future,” said Holeman.

A future, now awaiting EPA approval, and scrutiny by mosquito districts here in Louisiana, ready to fight against the mosquito threat, once again this summer.

While the New Orleans Mosquito District monitors the sterile mosquito program, it moves forward with its own biological control techniques. they are planning to place thousands of micro-crustaceans called ‘copepods’ into breeding areas this summer, which they say have been effective in destroying mosquito larvae.

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