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Should We Kill Off Disease-Causing Pests? Not So Fast

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

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Eradicating harmful species may have unintended consequences

Sleeping sickness (or trypanosomiasis), endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, is a horribly debilitating disease. When the parasitic protozoan that causes it gets into the nervous system and brain, weeks or months after being transmitted by the blood-eating tsetse fly, it sends the victim into a steep decline marked by depression, aggressiveness, psychotic behavior, disrupted sleep patterns and—if untreated—death.

Happily, a concerted multinational effort has reduced the reported incidence of the disease by 92 percent in this century, from 26,550 cases in 2000 to just 2,164 cases in 2016. That puts the fight against sleeping sickness on track to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) goal of eliminating it by 2020, according to a study published in December in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated methods of reducing the population of tsetse flies, the area where people are at risk of infection has also decreased by 61 percent in the same period.

Why not just finish the job and end sleeping sickness by eradicating the tsetse (pronounced TET-see) fly from the entire African continent? This is the stated goal of the African Union’s Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign. But another new study, published in December in BioScience, calls for reexamining that approach. “The important ethical question remains: Is tsetse fly elimination morally appropriate?” entomologist Jérémy Bouyer and his co-authors wrote. The study lays out a protocol for properly considering a question that is less simple and more momentous than it seems at first glance, says Bouyer, who spent seven years in tsetse control in Senegal and now works on pest-control programs for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Author: Richard Conniff
Source: ScientificAmerican
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