Sting in the tail of big blow wor­ries sci­en­tists

Townsville Bulletin - - Cyclone Yasi: the aftermath -

AS Cy­clone Yasi was bear­ing down on Queens­land’s trop­i­cal north, a g r o u p o f A u s t r a l i a n sci­en­tists f ound t heir minds drawn to the wel­fare of mos­qui­toes.

They stayed up late as high winds and driv­ing rain lashed Cairns and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties and threat­ened to oblit­er­ate their world­first dengue fever re­search pro­ject more than a decade in the mak­ing.

Dengue is an in­fec­tious, erup­tive, usu­ally epi­demic, fever of warm cli­mates, char­ac­terised es­pe­cially by se­vere pains in the joints and mus­cles.

If mankind’s ef­fort to con­trol one of the de­vel­op­ing world’s worst d i s e a s e s was a c a r d game, mother na­ture ap­peared to have played a last-minute ace from her sleeve.

‘‘ With the cy­clone com­ing through we were all sweat­ing and ner­vously watch­ing it,’’ said Pro­fes­sor Scott O’Neill, from the Univer­sity of Queensl a n d a n d E l i m i n a t e Dengue Pro­ject leader.

‘‘ I was in Cairns for all of Jan­uary work­ing on the trial but when the cy­clone was com­ing I was in Mel­bourne, sitting in a ho­tel room.

‘‘ I stayed up all night glued to the TV, watch­ing the satel­lite track­ing and think­ing ‘ If we get a di­rect hit on Cairns we’re g o i n g t o l o s e e v e r y - thing’.’’

‘‘ It was amaz­ing . . . 15 years of hard work to get to the point of this trial.’’

The cy­clone hit in the early hours of Fe­bru­ary 3, just weeks af­ter Prof O’Neill and his re­search col­leagues had re­leased their first buck­et­loads of a unique and dengue­proofed mos­quito into the wild.

These mozzies, freed at two sites on the out­skirts o f Ca i r n s , c a r r i e d a spe­cially-bred ver­sion of a bac­te­ria ( wol­bachia) which is com­mon to fruit flies but has not pre­vi­ously in­hab­ited mos­qui­toes.

The re­search was ex­pected to show how the bac­te­ria could spread nat­u­rally through the mos­quito pop­u­la­tion and how mozzies car­ry­ing it were un­able to also host the dengue par­a­site.

Yasi hit, but mer­ci­fully to the south of the trial sites, ac­cord­ing to Prof O’Neill.

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