Tue | Jan 22, 2019

No messing with mosquitoes - Research unit bent on finding ways to reduce the pesky population

Published:Sunday | January 28, 2018 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Head of the Mosquito Control and Research Unit at University of the West Indies Dr Marcia Mundle with her zapper at the ready.
Members of the team at the MRCU (from left) Jervis Crawford, Dr Marcia Mundle, Towanna Campbell, Tayshian Williamson, Sashell McKenzie, and Kimali Parchment.
Tayshian Williamson handles caged live mosquitoes at the MRCU.

A zapper is her new best friend, but head of the recently opened Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) Dr Marcia Mundle is not just interested in killing mosquitoes. She also wants to learn how to control them and pass this knowledge on to Jamaicans.

Jamaica's experience with viral diseases such as chikungunya (Chik-V) and the Zika Virus has shown just how debilitating these tiny insects can be as productivity was affected, family life was altered, and millions of dollars spent on healthcare when the Aedes aegypti mosquito brought these diseases to our shores.

Despite the impact, Mundle knows that people tend to forget once they feel the worst has passed. It is her job to ensure that health officials are always equipped with the knowledge to prevent future outbreaks and to address those mosquito-borne diseases that seem to be endemic to Jamaica like dengue fever.


Officially launched


The MRCU was officially launched at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, more than two weeks ago and is expected to become the hub for mosquito research.

There are more than 60 species of mosquitoes, and Mundle and her team of 10 have been getting more acquainted with each, especially the Aedes aegypti, which, unfortunately has created the most heartache, headache, and joint ache for Jamaicans.

"One of the first things we are trying to do in trying to prevent the outbreak is to reduce the mosquito population, and the mosquito that we want to focus on in terms of the disease is Aedes aegypti," Mundle told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The fewer mosquitoes there are, the fewer chances you have of passing on any disease that comes into the country. So we want to first encourage people to control their water containers," she said.

There was an Aedes aegypti eradication programme some years ago, but Mundle believes that complete eradication is a Utopian ideal. For her, the focus should be on reducing the mosquito population.

"So we move from eradication to control to management. We have been losing the battle all along, so now, we want to manage to make sure the population is low and so reduce the chance of transmission of any disease," she said.

Mundle doesn't believe that the country has rid itself of mosquito-borne diseases such as Chik-V and ZIKV. She says that the population has just become immune for now.

"Maybe in a couple of years, when you have a next whole batch of susceptible people, then you might have a flare-up of Chik-V and Zika coming again," she said.

According to Mundle, Jamaicans can help to ensure that future generations are not affected by helping to reduce an increase in the number of these mosquitoes.

"If you have a drum, you make sure it is covered all the time. Just prevent the mosquito from having access to these standing waters. People will have a pet water container and they never ever wash it. They just always top it up, and it is always going to breed if you do that. The flower pot saucer is one of the common things," said Mundle.

"It has become a social issue more than a biological issue now in terms of controlling the mosquito," she added.

Mundle graduated with a degree in entomology from the University of the West Indies in 1983, and her doctorial studies focused on the mosquito, but she finds that there are not many people in Jamaica with this sort of interest. She finds that the establishment of the MRCU is helping to change that.

"One of the successes is that we have trained a new batch of people to do public health entomology, so to speak, because there was a dearth of these here. You couldn't find them.

"The students who graduate in entomology do general entomology, but in terms of public health entomology, we need to increase the number of people involved in that. You can hardly find somebody who knows what a mosquito looks like," she said.

The MRCU is a joint initiative of the Ministry of Health and the UWI, with support from the United States Agency for International Development, and Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton says that in addition to the mosquito insectary now operational at the university, another one is being constructed by his ministry.

"This is the first time we will have a coordinated strategy involving ongoing research, tracking, and monitoring the mosquito population and actively pursuing new ways to address the threat caused by this vector," Tufton told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The unit is also supporting training to better manage eradication strategies," added Tufton.