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IAEA Hosts Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Experts on Fight Against Screwworm Pest

Vienna, Austria

Technicians work on the Sterile Insect Technique at the IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf. The environmentally-friendly insect pest control method involves the mass-rearing and sterilization, using radiation, of a target insect pest, and has been used successfully to supress the New World Screwworm in some countries. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is hosting an expert meeting this week to discuss stepping up efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean to combat the New World Screwworm, a flesh-eating insect pest that remains a threat to livestock despite a successful campaign since the 1970s to suppress it with a nuclear technique in some countries.

Eleven countries are attending the 12-16 December meeting, which has been organized in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The experts will take stock of a project using the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) – a type of insect birth control – to control the screwworm and discuss whether to extend and expand it. The countries taking part in the current three-year project are: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Cuba – where the New World Screwworm is present – will also participate in the meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, as will the United States, which has seen a recent outbreak in the state of Florida.

The New World Screwworm is dangerous to warm-blooded animals. Female flies lay eggs in animal wounds and soft tissues, such as the nose, and its larvae burrows through the flesh, leading to infections and a potentially fatal disease called myiasis. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) classifies myiasis as a transmissible disease of socioeconomic and public health importance.

“The New World Screwworm was once widespread in the Western Hemisphere. But it was eradicated from the United States, Mexico and Central America thanks to a campaign that started in the 1970s using an integrated pest control approach with the SIT,” said Walther Enkerlin, entomologist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “But it remains present in other countries in the Caribbean and South America. Continued efforts are needed to protect the current screwworm-free areas and to start pest control in other interested Member States.”

The SIT uses radiation to sterilize male insects, which are then released in large numbers to mate with wild females. As they do not produce any offspring, populations decrease over time. SIT offers an environmentally friendly, long-term solution to help countries fight insect pests which are causing health problems and economic damage. 

Prior to its eradication in some countries, the economic losses caused by New World Screwworm were estimated at over $1.5 billion per year in the region.  A permanent barrier of sterile insects, supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, is maintained over eastern Panama to protect screwworm-free areas. However, it is found in most of South America and in five Caribbean countries.

“The recent New World Screwworm outbreak in the Florida Keys has shown the urgent need to strengthen the surveillance systems and emergency response capacities and eliminate the pest from other areas,” Enkerlin said.

A recent FAO/IAEA-commissioned economic assessment showed that the New World Screwworm had a negative impact on meat and milk production in Cuba and also led to environmental damage due to extensive use of pesticides to suppress the pest.

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