Sting in the tail of big blow worries scientists
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.