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One STEP Ahead: New Industrial Irradiator Inaugurated in Ethiopia


The Southern Tsetse Eradication Project (STEP) is an ongoing national intervention by the Government of Ethiopia to eradicate two species of tsetse flies from the southern rift valley, making the area suitable for cattle rearing and enhancing agriculture.

Since 1997, through a series of successive technical cooperation (TC) projects, the IAEA has offered both funding and expertise to support the objectives of STEP. Most notably, a small gamma cell was procured on behalf of the Government of Ethiopia, allowing national counterparts to irradiate blood which is fed to the tsetse colonies. Unfortunately, the activities associated with STEP have now outgrown this small system.

On 19 July, IAEA representatives attended a ceremony in Kality, Addis Ababa, to inaugurate an industrial irradiator-a key piece of machinery for the sterilization of disease-carrying pests and the decontamination of blood for their diet. The new irradiator was partly-funded by the IAEA, and its introduction marks an important milestone on the road to a tsetse-free valley.

The tsetse flies are relatively large, biting insects that make their home in mid-continental Africa, between the Sahara and Kalahari deserts. To the untrained eye, the tsetse is no more remarkable than the average housefly, and yet it's the primary biological vector for trypanosomes, which cause 'nagana' in cattle and sleeping sickness in their human caretakers.

Sometimes called the 'poverty insect', the tsetse flies have presented a notable barrier to the development of the southern rift valley by threatening the health and productivity of local livestock.  Agriculture is a critical sector of Ethiopia's economy, and currently accounts for 47% of the country's GDP and 85% of total employment. Due to the importance played by cattle-for their draught power and for their meat, milk and dung-tsetse flies not only pose a health risk, but an economic risk as well.

In support of the Government of Ethiopia, and under the auspices of STEP, the IAEA has encouraged the adoption of a safe, environmentally-friendly intervention known as the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT). The process involves rearing male tsetse flies in a factory and exposing them to gamma radiation. The now-infertile pests are released into the target area where they compete with wild tsetse males, mating and attempting to procreate, but to no avail. Expert missions, scientific visits, and several IAEA fellowships were organized in order to cultivate the expertise necessary to conduct SIT operations.

However, the Sterile Insect Technique is only applied once an insect population has been adequately suppressed using conventional activities. These activities include both aerial and pour-on chemical spraying, which have been deployed in the region since 1997, freeing large swathes of land for use by farmers and herders. While effective, these conventional measures are not sufficient or sustainable in the long-term-SIT is necessary to eradicate the population completely.  

Livestock bred in the region are surviving in greater numbers, allowing local farmers to increase the area ploughed, increase their yields, plan for future harvests, and produce nutritious food for nearby markets and communities. Furthermore, foreign currency spending on trypanosomosis medication has fallen, freeing income to invest in better livestock breeds and intensified agricultural practices.    

With the industrial irradiator now in place, and a complementary mass-rearing facility already operational, the vision of a tsetse-free Ethiopia is within reach. 

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