Scientists in Tanzania innovate to combat mosquitos in their burrow

Ifakara village in Tanzania hosts world’s largest captive mosquito colony, enabling scientists to study behavior of deadly insect

Kizito Makoye   | 02.09.2021
Scientists in Tanzania innovate to combat mosquitos in their burrow

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania 

At the Ifakara village in eastern Tanzania, scientists have set up a research center inside a mosquito den, to study their mating pattern to control their population and thus, malaria outbreaks.

Ifakara – which means a place of death, is a breeding location for the Anopheles variety of mosquitos, who transmit Plasmodium parasites to humans, which causes malaria.

Tanzania has the third-largest population at risk of malaria in the African continent.

As part of their broader push to understand the behavior of mosquitoes, researchers at the Ifakara Health Institute – a Tanzanian health research organization, have discovered new tactics to outwit and reduce the population of mosquitos.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Fredros Okumu, chief scientist at the research center said they are using cutting-edge technologies to study mosquitos in their den to find ways to eliminate the species that endanger human lives.

“One of the most interesting works undertaken is to study the mating behavior of malaria mosquitoes,” he said.

According to Okumu, the mating locations are determined by elders in the mosquito colony and they remain in use for multiple generations over the years.

Explaining the mating behavior of this flying insect, the scientist said the females are lured to join a 30 minutes ritualistic flight dance against sun-set horizons.

While female mosquitoes mate only once, for 20 seconds, researchers say males seek multiple partners.

Because of the moist and humid swampy environment, Ifakara also hosts the world’s largest captive mosquito colony, to enable researchers to understand the behavior of the deadly insect.

Many techniques like mosquito traps, mimicking the odor of sweaty feet -- a smell that mosquitoes find irresistible and other drugs are tested on mosquitos in the area.

Constant innovation

Okumu said insecticides no longer kill the insects, as they have developed resistance to many of them. “Part of our work is to constantly innovate and create new tools that we can use to keep pace,” he said.

They have developed new technologies including a special ribbon and foot sandals treated with repellent to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

“If you want to provide round-the-clock protection, the best place to put the repellent is in the shoes,” Okumu said.

While mosquitoes spread diseases to millions of people globally, researchers say they are still the least understood organism.

Okumu said the mosquitoes are intelligent insects who skillfully use their sensors mounted on their antennae to detect and accurately distinguish between humans, based on breath, sweat, and body odor.

“This is why some people get more bites than others,” he said.

At close range, mosquitoes can distinguish colors and temperatures also. The researcher said that these flying insects can use their memory and return to households where they had last obtained blood.

Researchers also use the sense of smell to identify how the mosquitoes are attracted to humans.

Grappling to understand mosquitos

Demonstrating how hungry mosquitoes are being fed, Okumu puts his arm in a captive cage with more than 500 mosquitoes.

“ It can be quite painful initially, but then you get used to it,” he said

Okumu said researchers use human and cow blood to feed the trapped mosquitoes for research purposes.

He said scientists are still grappling to understand the deadliest mosquito species, Anopheles funestus because it is hard to raise it in the laboratory environment.

Researchers say effective malaria control can only succeed by identifying, understanding, and targeting Anopheles species instead of killing all mosquitoes.

The researchers at Ifakara have created numerous mosquito repellents, including furniture treated with a repellent that allows villagers to enjoy evenings outside and still stay protected.

Using this repellent, residents in Ifakara are now daring to sit outside to breathe in the fresh air. A resident Anna Kwayu said since this new repellent was given to them, she and his children now sleep outside their homes.

“I wouldn’t dare to do so before this innovation” she added.

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