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Abolishing Tsetse Fly, Carrier of Deadly Sleeping Sickness

Jul 17, 2014 04:01 PM EDT

The tsetse fly of Africa is a carrier of the deadly sleeping sickness, and ecologist Steven L. Peck from Brigham Young University is working to abolish this fatal nuisance in order to stop the disease in its tracks.

This creature, by biting humans and animals, passes around the fatal African sleeping sickness.

In order to know where to concentrate their efforts to eliminate the highest number of tsetse flies, crews from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization used Peck's advanced computer models - early trials in Senegal have resulted in eliminating 99.6 percent of the flies.

According to the study, the full target area selected in Senegal is planned to be cleared of tsetse flies by the end of 2016.

"By all measures, we had a very successful trial, which is extremely hard with tsetse flies because they're an amazingly complex insect to try and control," Peck said in a news release. "It was a big deal to see it work like this."

The tsetse fly is the main vector for Human African Trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness. The disease affects the central nervous system and is fatal if left untreated. In certain cases, it can be deadly even before symptoms start to show.

This insect is also referred to as the "poverty fly" because it damages farmers' ability to grow crops by killing off the animals they use to plow fields. According to Peck, "the effects of this disease are devastating."

"It's an issue that doesn't get a lot of attention, but it should," he added.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), trypanosomiasis is a majorly neglected disease - meaning it doesn't get the same research or funding as other major, possibly more known, diseases like malaria.

In Peck's research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, him and colleagues treated tsetse flies with radiation to render them sterile, and then released them back into the wild to mate with wild flies.

Since sleeping sickness doesn't receive a lot of attention otherwise, they hope this process with help to abolish the fly not just from Senegal, but other parts of Africa as well. They plan to implement similar eradication methods across sub-Saharan African as part of the Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign.

"Our work has shown that we can tackle a very devastating disease," Peck concluded. "It gives hope that the fly can be eradicated and controlled to alleviate the poverty it causes."

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