IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency

01/13/2022 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 01/13/2022 12:20

Mosquitoes Defeated in Cuba Trial with Nuclear Technique

In Cuba, like in most tropical countries, dengue is a growing problem. Transmitted by mosquitoes, this viral infection causes high fever, muscle and joint pains, skin rashes, and, in the most severe cases, death. Globally, the number of dengue cases reported to the World Health Organization has increased eight-fold over the last two decades. The Cuban government is therefore aiming to tackle the spread of dengue by piloting a nuclear technique which can decrease mosquito populations.

The technique in question is the sterile insect technique (SIT): an approach to insect population control relying on the release of sterilised male mosquitos. Supported through the IAEA's technical cooperation programme and in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a pilot trial of a SIT campaign in a Havana neighbourhood has reduced mosquito (Aedes aegypti) numbers by up to 90 percent last year and early reports indicate that cases of mosquito-borne diseases were completely eliminated in the last two months of the trial.

"In Cuba, controlling Aedes aegypti is a national priority," said René Gato Armas, an entomologist and head of the SIT group at Cuba's Pedro Kourí Tropical Medicine Institute. "After a major dengue epidemic in 1981, the government deployed an intensive national programme based on conventional methods which almost eradicated the mosquito in the late 1980s. Since then, however, epidemic outbreaks from imported cases have been frequent. Currently, dengue is considered an endemic disease in Cuba."

The SIT is among the most environment-friendly insect pest control methods ever developed. Irradiation, such as with gamma rays and X-rays, is used to sterilize mass-reared insects so that, while they remain sexually competitive, they cannot produce offspring. For the last five years Gato Armas has been working closely with experts at the IAEA and the FAO to collect baseline data and develop the pilot SIT trial as an alternative to mosquito control efforts that are declining in their efficacy and are damaging to the environment.

"Dissatisfaction with other mosquito population control techniques, such as sanitary inspection, larvae control and insecticides, has drawn the government to the SIT and lets sterilised mosquitoes do most of the work," said Gato Armas. He said that the indiscriminate use of insecticides has also triggered resistance to insecticides in Aedes aegypti, and the pilot SIT trial is the start to a more effective and environmental-friendly mosquito control programme. Conducted between April and August 2020, the pilot trial covered an area of 50 hectares in an isolated neighbourhood of southwest Havana, El Cano, which was selected as SIT intervention site. Arroyo Arenas, another neighbourhood of similar size, was used as an untreated control site.