[private] Trevor Thomas and Rachel Fischell, pre-med students at Duke University in North Carolina, decided to do something completely different during their summer break this year – eradicate malaria. The two undergrads obtained a grant to explore the feasibility of trying a new biocontrol method on Roatan that Fischell said “could be a worldwide cure (solution) to malaria,” and possibly dengue as well.
Thomas, who is from Ohio, and Fischell, from Maryland, learned about the method – which uses mosquitoes to control other mosquitoes – from one of their professors at Duke, Mohammed Norr. In a lecture, Norr mentioned work being done by Ary Hoffman at the University of Melbourne in Australia indicating that a bacterium known as Wolbachia when introduced into mosquitoes prevents them from transmitting malaria or dengue. Not only that, Hoffman’s research also revealed that mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia are also better able to reproduce and that their offspring also cannot transmit dengue or malaria.
Researchers introduced 300,000 Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes into a malarial area of Queensland, Australia, and when they returned five months later, they found that 80 percent of the mosquitoes in the area carried the bacteria. The implication was that by simple Darwinian selection, the ability to transmit malaria could be bred out of mosquito populations in a short period of time. Research teams are now trying to replicate those results in Brazil.
With Norr’s help, Thomas and Fischell got a grant from the Remich Foundation to explore the potential of Roatan as a site to implement this control strategy. Success would depend on community and governmental support. They arrived in June and began surveying island residents on their knowledge of malaria, how serious a threat they consider it to be and how willing they would be to cooperate with the new control strategy. They have also been volunteering part-time at Clínica Esperanza in Sandy Bay, which they said was an ideal survey location, because people go there from all over the island seeking treatment. They expected to collect more than 200 surveys before leaving Roatan July 18.
In addition to the surveys, Thomas and Fischell have been meeting with local health authorities to request data and support and seeking local cooperation to place traps around the island to collect mosquitoes for data.
“People are surprisingly willing to cooperate,” said Fischell. “They know malaria and dengue are serious problems.”
However, Thomas said the people they surveyed knew “strikingly little about these illnesses” and how they are transmitted. The more they know, the easier it is to control the diseases, he said.
Both students found their summer on Roatan exciting; “eye-opening” in Fischell’s words. “The contrast is what hit me,” said Thomas. On the one hand, he said, are five-star resorts and houses of the rich and famous; on the other are people in places like Crawfish Rock who “can’t even afford shoes.”
But of course their month on Roatan wasn’t all work. Thomas got his SCUBA certification (Fischell already had hers), and the two were planning on going on a night dive a few hours after they were interviewed by the Voice. They expect to be back. [/private]