MSU plan would control deadly tsetse fly

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The tsetse fly spreads sleeping sickness among humans and animals alike. (view larger image)

For the first time, scientists have created a satellite-guided plan to effectively control the tsetse fly, an African killer that spreads sleeping sickness disease among humans and animals and wipes out $4.5 billion in livestock every year.

Michigan State University (MSU) researchers developed the plan using a decade’s worth of NASA satellite images of the Kenyan landscape and by monitoring tsetse movement. With unprecedented precision, the plan can tell where and when to direct eradication efforts.

Current control efforts in Kenya are ineffective and waste money by targeting tsetse-free areas, said MSU AgBioResearch scientist Joseph Messina, lead researcher on the National Institutes of Health-funded project.

“Our model dramatically reduces the cost of controlling the tsetse, and it’s more effective,” said Messina, an associate professor of geography and a member of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations at MSU.

If applied, the plan would be effective in all of East Africa and other savannah areas on the continent, Messina said. The tsetse, which feeds on the blood of vertebrate animals, lives in 37 sub-Saharan countries and infects thousands of people and millions of cattle every year. It affects primarily the rural poor.

Funding for large-scale tsetse control has dropped significantly in the past 25 years, as has optimism that sleeping sickness – technically known as African trypanosomiasis – can be contained.

The Kenyan government would need an estimated $100 million to run tsetse control efforts in its targeted containment areas. The problem: it doesn’t have nearly that much money, and the government containment area is highly imprecise, Messina said.

The MSU plan would cost as little as $14.2 million. The plan relies on the use of targets – which are sheets of dark-colored cloth sprayed with insecticide – in more strategic areas. Targets are highly effective and the most environmentally friendly control method, said MSU researcher Paul McCord.

Current government strategy includes using targets and aerial spraying, but the spraying also kills off beneficial species such as honeybees.

“They’ve been trying to control the tsetse for more than 100 years,” Messina said, “but nothing has worked on a large-scale basis.”

The MSU plan is based on a simulation that uses satellite readings every two weeks dating back to 2002. The plan takes into account a host of factors – including temperature, amount of vegetation, tsetse lifespan, and location of cattle and other animals – to predict where the fly will be and when it will be there, McCord said.

The plan is highlighted in the May 2012 issue of the research journal Applied Geography. In addition to McCord and Messina, the paper was co-authored by David Campbell and Sue Grady of the MSU Department of Geography.

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