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"If we can kill this fly, we can feed a nation" (Hassane Mahamat Hassane)

Alwihda Info | Par Hassane Mahamat Hassane - 21 Juillet 2015

Hassane Mahamat Hassane, Coordinator of AU-PATTEC
Hassane Mahamat Hassane, Coordinator of AU-PATTEC
Hassane Mahamat Hassane
Coordinator of AU-PATTEC

Food insecurity across vast stretches of sub-Saharan Africa can be attributed to a little known insect called the tsetse fly. This tiny vector found only in Africa has, for centuries, reduced massive areas of an entire continent to an agriculture wasteland filled with hungry and malnutritioned inhabitants.

The tiny tsetse fly transmits a disease called trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, to animals and humans. Sleeping sickness is the scourge of sub-Saharan Africa where, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 70 million people and 46 million cattle are at risk of contracting the disease. Caused by blood parasites, the disease is spread through the bite of a tsetse fly. It affects both humans and animals, particularly cattle.

The disease in humans causes fever, convulsions, coma, and even death if left untreated. Because the initial symptoms resemble malaria, it’s often not detected early enough, and the drugs used to treat the second stage of sleeping sickness can be toxic enough to kill the patient.
The disease in livestock is often lethal or leads to a debilitating chronic condition that reduces fertility, weight gain, meat and milk production and work efficiency of livestock used to cultivate the land. Every year, at least three million animals succumb to sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa.
Beyond its health impact on humans and livestock is its impact on African agriculture and the livelihood of the rural population in the affected countries. The fly and the disease influence where people decide to live, how they manage their livestock and the intensity and the mix of crop agriculture. The combined effects result in changes in land use and environment which may, in turn, affect human welfare and increase the vulnerability of agricultural activity.

In all, around 37 African countries are affected by the tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis with an outcome of ill health, shortage of farm labor, food insecurity and rural poverty. One of the worst characteristics of poverty is its tendency to self-perpetuate. In fact, the annual reproduction loss in cattle from tsetse flies is estimated at about US$4-5 billion.

This is an intolerable situation today and it is particularly concerning as a future prognosis. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), we face a major challenge in feeding an expanding world population. Today, that population is 7.2 billion, but it is expected to grow to over 9 billion by 2050. To nourish another two billion people in 2050, food production must rise by 60%.

Decreasing or eradicating tyrpaosomiasis could help. But, despite its massive impact, trypanosomiais is a disease that doesn't get a lot of attention. The World Health Organization has labeled trypanosomiasis as a neglected disease, indicating that it doesn't get the same research funding or attention as other major diseases (such as malaria). WHO has also pointed out that sustained control efforts have lowered the number of new cases.

Several sustained efforts to eradicate the insidious tsetse fly have proven to be successful.
A successful eradication program was completed in 1997 on the island of Zanzibar in East Africa. Following a three-year fly suppression campaign followed by release of sterile insects, the tsetse flies were eradicated and no case of sleeping sickness has since been reported on the island. A study, six years after eradication, found that milk production had tripled, local beef production had doubled and the use of animal manure for crop farming had increased five-fold.

Similarly, on the Loos Islands off the coast of Guinea, an integrated eradication campaign was launched in 2006 and, today, the tsetse fly population has been reduced to non-detectable levels. Another success story has come from Botswana which has been successful in clearing the tsetse fly from the Okavango Delta region, using sequential aerial application of low dosage, non-residual insecticides as aerosols. A similar approach has also achieved some success in the Caprivi area of Namibia based on a joint venture campaign.

Experience has shown that no single technology or approach will result in a sustained removal of tsetse flies from an area. An integrated, countrywide approach with sufficient funds to sustain it is needed. Recognizing that government resources and manpower are limited, systematic approaches and sequencing of priorities are key to success.

Proper training of farmers is also integral to success. Farmers need to know what control options are available and how to use them effectively. They should be encouraged to keep their livestock in pens whenever possible to reduce the animals’ exposure to tsetse flies and other pests. Pens can be lined with insecticide-treated screen which kills tsetse flies before they can reach livestock. Farm families should be taught how to distinguish a tsetse fly from a less harmful species, and they need to understand that sleeping sickness can and should be treated by a doctor.

Success in this venture is bound to lead to increased farming areas and, therefore, increased incomes to farmers and improved livelihood for rural dwellers. Success will also lead to the encouragement of donors to assist further in the fight against the tsetse fly which will open new land for farming and, by doing so, improve the contribution of agriculture to the GDP of African countries. While the road may be long and hard, the end result -- nations with healthy citizens, robust and productive livestock, a plentiful supply of nutritious food and economic prosperity – are so well worth it.


Hassane Mahamat Hassane is Coordinator of AU-PATTEC (Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Campaign).