While mosquito control efforts across the territory have historically focused on elimination of the pests by tried and true methods such as getting rid of the standing water where they breed and liberal doses of insect repellent, a St. Croix entomologist has found two other more novel approaches.
Joe Williamson, an entomologist at the University of the Virgin Islands, said a process that introduces the wolbachia bacteria into the male mosquito would be the most promising for the Virgin Islands.
“It’s inserted into a generation of mosquito eggs,” Williamson said.
Williamson said his second idea probably wouldn’t fly in the Virgin Islands because for starters it comes with a $6 million price tag to do just a small section of St. Croix. Additionally he said the mosquitos are genetically manipulated so the male can’t reproduce. He said there is a lot of opposition to anything that’s genetically manipulated.
“A lot of it is hysteria,” he said, while acknowledging the wolbachia bacteria exists in nature.
According to Williamson, this genetic mutation process developed by the British biotech company Oxitec has had a lot of success in Brazil.
While those are cutting-edge ideas for eradicating the mosquitos that carry dengue and chikungunya, he said when there’s a severe outbreak, the Health Department needs to rely on spraying in small areas where the outbreak is centered. The Health Department did not spray during last year’s chikungunya outbreak.
Williamson also suggested that the Health Department push the use of mosquito nets over beds. However, he said, the nets are difficult to find at St. Croix stores. He said he bought a few on Amazon, but the company wouldn’t ship them to the Virgin Islands so he had to transship through his mother on the mainland.
Williamson said he does not think the territory is prepared for another chikungunya outbreak. He said it’s very likely one will happen.
According to Department of Health’s website, there were 1,321 suspected chikungunya cases across the territory in 2014, 230 confirmed cases and 46 probable cases.
That number is no doubt on the low side because many cases go unreported by those who suffer. And in the beginning of the outbreak, some doctors were reluctant to comply with the Health Department’s request that they report chikungunya cases.
Dr. Esther Ellis, Health’s epidemiologist, did not respond to phone calls requesting her opinion on Williamson’s suggestions or information on Health’s preparedness for the next chikungunya outbreak.
Chikungunya is a viral disease that is transmitted to people by mosquitoes. The first case in the region was reported on French St. Martin in December 2013. Mosquitos also transmit dengue, which has been a problem in the territory for many years.
For more on wolbachia, visit www.eliminatedengue.com/our-research/wolbachia
For information on Oxitec, see http://www.oxitec.com.