It has been dubbed The Barbecue Stopper: an aggressive mosquito spreading a crippling virus through Asia. Both the mosquito and the virus are now knocking on Australia’s door, to the alarm of public health authorities worried about a major outbreak.
The mosquito is the Asian tiger mosquito, or Aedes albopictus. The virus is chikungunya. Both are well and truly on the radar of scientists at QIMR Berghofer.
Chikungunya is an African word meaning ‘that which bends up’ and describes the posture of people suffering from the disease, curled up in pain. There is no vaccine, cure, or specific treatment.
It is caused by a virus similar to Australia’s Ross River and Barmah Forest viruses. They all belong to the alphavirus family, and they all cause arthritis that can last for months.
The debilitating disease is sweeping through Papua New Guinea and south-east Asia and is being brought home by Australian tourists travelling to popular holiday destinations. In 2013 there were also outbreaks in the Pacific and, for the first time in recent history, the Caribbean.
Chikungunya wasn’t a major disease concern until it mutated around 2005 on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. It was only a small change, but it helped the virus adapt to the Asian tiger mosquito.
QIMR Berghofer scientists are approaching chikungunya from different angles. The Inflammation Biology Laboratory, led by Professor Andreas Suhrbier, is studying the virus, working to understand why it causes arthritis.
Meanwhile the Mosquito Control Laboratory, headed by Associate Professor Greg Devine, monitors the Asian Tiger Mosquito’s movements, and studies the insect’s biology. This team is also working with Queensland councils, economists in the US and the CSIRO to gauge the potential costs of the mosquitoes becoming established on the Australian
“The Asian tiger mosquito is well established in the Torres Strait, where the local authorities do a tremendous job of controlling them on the main transport and population hubs of Thursday and Horn Islands,” Associate Professor Devine said.
“Despite that, a few of these aggressive biters still find their way into traps at Australian ports. So far, we’ve managed to contain them, but most researchers believe it is just a matter of time before they slip through and become established.”
If the Asian tiger mosquito does become established in Australia, it would dramatically complicate local disease prevention programs because the species could also spread dengue fever south from North Queensland.
“Dengue is limited to North Queensland because of the limited geographic range of another, largely tropical mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The Asian tiger mosquito is a closely related cousin that can also carry dengue and can adapt to a far greater range of climates. It could establish in all of Australia’s major population centres,” Associate Professor Devine said.
The Mosquito Control Laboratory has a new insectary in the Bancroft Centre, housing a range of mosquito breeds, to help the team develop new surveillance and control strategies. It is the largest quarantine approved insectary in Australia, and is designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an official global Collaborating Centre for Environmental Management for Vector Control. In 2014 QIMR Berghofer will house Asian tiger mosquitoes in its new, highly secure quarantine unit.