Radiation winning the fight against the tsetse fly in Africa

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For decades, African nations have suffered the devastating consequences caused by the tsetse fly. According to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation the bloodsucking insect kills more than three million herds of livestock in sub-Saharan Africa every year, resulting in more than US$4 billion in losses in the region.

In Zambia, about 60% of the country’s traditional cattle as well as goat and sheep populations are at risk of infection with trypanosomiasis. Apart from cattle, dogs and pigs are also at risk. Human-Animal Trypanosomiasis (HAT), commonly referred to as sleeping sickness, affects 100 people per year, according to President Edgar Lungu.

The president made these remarks at the 34th African Union International Council for Trypanosomiasis Research and Control Conference, which was held in Livingstone last week.

He urged livestock experts and other stakeholders from 38 African countries who attended the meeting to devise a practical roadmap to eradicate tsetse flies and trypanosomiasis, which threaten the growth of the livestock and tourism sectors. The theme of the conference was “Capitalising on progress made against HAT – the way forward in partnership with all stakeholders”.

“The increasing presence of tsetse flies has serious negative consequences for the growth of the agriculture and tourism sectors,” President Lungu said, in a speech read on his behalf by Livestock and Fisheries Minister Michael Katambo.

“The government supports initiatives to eradicate the tsetse flies that cause the tropical disease, threatening human and animal life, and urge the conference to come up with a roadmap to eradicate the disease,” he added.

But there’s good news showing up on the horizon in tackling the tsetse fly menace. During the last decade, the situation has been drastically improved. Scientists have found a remedy – radiation.

With the help of nuclear technologies, African countries are now winning the battle against the livestock menacing flies. The Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar were among the pioneers to use radiation against the tsetse fly.

The nuclear-based sterile insect technique (SIT) played a fundamental role in achieving the total eradication of the tsetse fly population. SIT is a form of insect pest control that involves the mass-breeding and sterilization of male tsetse flies using ionizing radiation in special rearing facilities. The sterile males are released systematically from the ground or by air in tsetse-infested areas, where they mate with wild females, which do not subsequently produce offspring.

The results of nuclear technique employment are incredibly effective. Through the eradication of the tsetse fly socio-economic conditions have dramatically improved. Since 2014 socio-economic studies have shown that the total number of all cattle breeds have increase by roughly 38%. These figures are truly impressive, as most rural households earn more than 20% of their total income from the livestock business.

For instance, milk production has nearly doubled from 4.6 to 10 liters after the introduction of nuclear based techniques. Radiation has proved to be an effective solution for the eradication of many infectious insects on almost every continent on Earth. SIT has been applied to hundreds of species of fruit flies, moths, mosquitoes and screwworm flies.

By implementing the same methods Senegal has in four years declared some its regions totally tsetse free. Ethiopia has also chosen this option, which has already helped to bring down the fly population by 90%.

There’s no doubt that Zambia needs this technology to deal with tsetse flies. The country is on the verge of taking a leading role in nuclear technology and research. The Zambian government recently embarked on the path of establishing up its own nuclear science and technology programme in collaboration with Russia and Rosatom.

The parties have already signed several agreements to start construction of the Zambian Centre for Nuclear Science and Technologies, which will be equipped with laboratories and functional systems for scientific research as well as a multi-purpose research reactor.

The centre will make it possible to conduct research in the radiobiology sphere and establish production of radioisotopes in Zambia for wide application in cancer diagnostics and treatment. It will also provide staff training for the local nuclear industry.

Viktor Polikarpov, Rosatom Regional Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa, noted: “Radiation treatment of food products is one of the various applications of the state-of-the-art radiation technologies offered by Rosatom to its foreign partners. Today about 515 radiation facilities created with the use of Russian technologies are in operation in 22 countries worldwide, including the UK, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, China, South Korea and India”.

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