November 1, 2016

After 40 years, the most important weapon against mosquitoes may be failing

Written by Kai Kupferschmidt

This post originally appeared in Science.

When Janet Hemingway started her career in mosquito research in 1977, a child was dying of malaria every 10 seconds. Yet the disease, and the mosquitoes that carry it, were low on the global health priority list.

Today, the landscape has been transformed. Scientists at the prestigious Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) in the United Kingdom, which Hemingway now heads, and elsewhere have sequenced the genomes of at least 23 mosquito species, looking for clues that might help them conquer the disease. And malaria has surged to the top of the global agenda. Thanks to a bolus of new funds, deaths have been halved. And halved again.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The world still relies on the same class of insecticides, known as pyrethroids, as it did in 1977. Now, in part because of that neglect, these compounds may be nearing the end of their useful lives as mosquitoes develop resistance to them at alarming rates, and there is little in the pipeline to replace them. “If we don’t do something about this very quickly, we have a public health catastrophe on our hands,” Hemingway says.

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