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Disease Burden Growing as Vector Insects Adapt to Climate Change

by Zadie Neufville

The following article was published by InterPress Serice (IPS) on April 18, 2017
KINGSTON, Jamaica, (IPS)
– There were surprised gasps when University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor John Agard told journalists at an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in late November 2016 that mosquitoes were not only living longer but were “breeding in septic tanks underground”.

For many, it explained why months of fogging at the height of Zika and Chikungunya outbreaks had done little to reduce mosquito populations in their various countries. The revelation also made it clear that climate change would force scientists and environmental health professionals to spend more time studying new breeding cycles and finding new control techniques for vector insects.

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito no longer breed breeds primarily in clean water and have evolved to breed in septic tanks and pit latrines they fly out to feed.

Jump to March 31, 2017 when the UWI and the government of Jamaica opened the new Mosquito Control and Research Unit at the Mona Campus in Kingston, to investigate new ways to manage and eradicate mosquitoes. Its existence is an acknowledgement that the region is looking for improved management and control strategies.

Agard was reporting on a study by the late Dave Chadee, a co-author on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and UWI professor. The study examined evolutionary changes in the life cycle of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the yellow and dengue fevers as well as the chikungunya and Zika viruses.

“We found out that in higher temperatures, the mosquito’s breeding cycle shortens. They go through more cycles during the season and they produce more offspring. The mosquitoes, however, are a little smaller,” Agard told journalists.

Even more worrisome were Chadee’s findings on the longevity of the “evolved” mosquitoes – 100 days instead of the 30 days they were previously thought to survive. The study also found that mosquitoes that survived longer than 90 days could produce eggs and offspring that were born transmitters, raising new concerns.

Alarming as these findings were, they were only the latest on the evolutionary strategies of vector insect populations in the Caribbean. A study published in February 2016 revealed that the triatomino (or vinchuca), the vector insects for Chagas disease, were breeding twice a year instead of only in the rainy season. And before that in 2011, Barbadian Environmental officers found mosquitoes breeding in junction boxes underground.

Sebastian Gourbiere, the researcher who led the Chagas study, pointed to the need for regional governments to re-examine their vector control methods if they are to effectively fight these diseases.

“The practical limitations that the dual threat poses outweigh the capabilities of local vector teams,” he said in response to questions about the control of Chagas disease.

Caribbean scientists and governments had already been warned. The IPCC’s AR 5 (2013) acknowledged the sensitivity of human health to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of the changing climate.

“Until mid-century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist. New conditions may emerge under climate change, and existing diseases may extend their range into areas that are presently unaffected,” the report said.

Gourbiere agrees with Agard and other regional researchers that there is need for solutions that are primarily focused on vector controls: eradication and effective controls of the Aedes aegypti could also eliminate the diseases they spread.

The failure of the newest vector control strategies also forced health professionals to revisit the old, but proven techniques developed with the guidance of researchers like Chadee, whose work on dengue and yellow fever, malaria and most recently the Zika virus had helped to guide the development of mosquito control, surveillance and control strategies in the Caribbean.

And while Zika brought with it several other serious complications like microcephaly, which affects babies born to women infected by the virus, and Guillain Barré Syndrome, the threats also exposed more serious concerns. The rapid spread of the viruses opened the eyes of regional governments to the challenges of emerging diseases and of epidemics like ebola and H1N1.

But it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that raised concerns about the status and possible effects of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) – a group of communicable diseases including the Zika virus – which affect more than a billion people in 149 countries each year but for which there are no treatments.

NTDs include Dengue, Chic-V and Chagas Disease and until the last outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 6,000 people, Ebola was among them. In the previous 26 outbreaks between 1976 and 2013, only 1,716 people in sub-Saharan African nations were infected, WHO data showed.

Now the Caribbean is changing its approach to the study and control of vector insects. So while there are no widespread infections of Chagas disease, UWI is preparing to begin its own studies on the triatomino and the disease it transmits.

An addition to UWI’s Task Force formed just over a year ago to “aggressively eliminate” breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Mosquito Unit is expected to build on Professor Chadee’s groundbreaking research.

“From dealing with the consequences of Chikungunya, Dengue and Zika on our population to managing the potentially harmful effects of newly discovered viruses, the benefits of establishing a unit like this will produce significant rewards in the protection of national and regional health,” UWI Mona Professor Archibald McDonald said at the launch.

Zika had been infecting thousands of people in Asia and Africa for decades before it made its devastating appearance in Brazil and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Zika also made its way to the US and several European nations in 2016, before being confirmed in Thailand on Sept 30.

Mapping Zika

Not surprising, as in its 3rd AR, and most recently in the 5th AR the IPCC projected increases in threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations of mainly tropical and sub-tropical countries. Those findings are also supported by more recent independent studies including Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus, published by the University of Oxford (UK) in February 2016.

By combining climate data, mosquito prevalence and the socio-economic makeup of each region, researchers found the likelihood of the Zika virus gaining a foothold worldwide to be “extremely high”. The team led by Moritz Kraemer also concluded that Zika alone could infect more than a third of the world’s population.

The findings noted that shifts in the breeding patterns of the Aedes family of mosquitos allowed it to take advantage of newly ‘favourable conditions’ resulting from climate change. The environmentally suitable areas now stretch from the Caribbean to areas of South America; large portions of the United States to sizeable areas of sub-Saharan Africa; more than two million square miles of India “from its northwest regions through to Bangladesh and Myanmar”; the Indochina region, southeast China and Indonesia and includes roughly 250,000 square miles of Australia.

“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission,” Dr. Kraemar said.

Aedes albopictus and known as the Asian tiger mosquito, one of the most effective vector insects for mosquito diseases

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ efficiency at spreading diseases in urban areas and population densities are believed to be the main factors driving the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Other studies have found the Zika virus in 19 species of the Aedes family, with the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) – which has now spread its range to Europe –  likely another efficient vector.

Back in the Caribbean, Chadee’s findings on the adaptation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito from clean water breeders to breeding in available waters is expected to drive the development of regional strategies that are better suited to the evolving environment of a changing climate.

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SPARKS Plugs Gap in Caribbean Climate Research

by Zadie Neufville


The following was published by IPS on March 11, 2017

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Mar 11 2017 (IPS)
– On Nov. 30 last year, a new high-performance ‘Super Computer’ was installed at the University of the West Indies (UWI) during climate change week. Dubbed SPARKS – short for the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing – the computer is already churning out the ‘big data’ Caribbean small island states (SIDS) need to accurately forecast and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region.

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Principal of UWI Mona,  Professor Archibald Gordon.

Experts are preparing the Caribbean to mitigate the devastating impacts – rising seas, longer dry spells, more extreme rainfall and potentially higher impact tropical cyclones – associated with climate change. The impacts are expected to decimate the economies of the developing states and many small island states, reversing progress and exacerbating poverty. Observers say the signs are already here.

The system will help scientists to “better evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure.” –UWI Professor Archibald Gordon

Before SPARKS, regional scientists struggled to produce the kinds of credible data needed for long-term climate projections. Only a few months ago, UWI’s lack of data processing capacity restricted researchers to a single data run at a time, said Jay Campbell, research fellow at the climate research group . Each data run would take up to six months due to the limited storage capacity and lack of redundancy, he said noting: “If anything went wrong, we simply had to start over.”

Immediately, SPARKS answered the need for the collection, analysis, modelling, storage, access and dissemination of climate information in the Caribbean. Over the long term, climate researchers will be able to produce even more accurate and reliable climate projections at higher spatial resolutions to facilitate among other things, the piloting and scaling up of innovative climate resilient initiatives.

Scientists in the region are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry sells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

So, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces its next global assessment report in 2018, there will be much more information from the Caribbean, making SPARKS a critical tool in the region’s fight against climate change.

Not only has the new computer – described as one of the fastest in the Caribbean – boosted the region’s climate research capabilities by plugging the gaping hole in regional climate research, UWI Mona’s principal Professor Archibald Gordon said, “It should help regional leaders make better decisions in their responses and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change”.

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Photo: Zadie Neufville: Caribbean scientists are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry spells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

The expert underscore the need for “big data” to provide the information they need to improve climate forecasting in the short, medium and long term. Now, they have the capacity and the ability to complete data runs that usually take six months, in just two days.

The system will help scientists to better “evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure,” Gordon said.

As the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported in June 2016 as “the 14th consecutive month of record heat for land and oceans; and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average,” regional scientists have committed to proving information to guide Caribbean governments on the actions they need to lessen the impact of climate change.

The region has consistently sought to build its capacity to provide accurate and consistent climate data. Efforts were ramped up after a September 2013 ‘rapid climate analysis’ in the Eastern Caribbean identified what was described as “a number of climate change vulnerabilities and constraints to effective adaptation”.

The USAID study identified among other things “the lack of accurate and consistent climate data to understand climate changes, predict impacts and plan adaptation measures”. To address the challenges, the WMO and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), with funding from USAID, established the Regional Climate Centre in Barbados.

The launch of the new computer is yet another step in overcoming the constraints. It took place during a meeting of the IPCC at UWI’s regional headquarters at Mona – significant because it signalled to the international grouping that the Caribbean was now ready and able to produce the big data needed for the upcoming 2018 report.

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UWI Mona Campus, Jamaica

Head of the Caribbean Climate Group Professor Michael Taylor explained in an interview that the credibility and accuracy of climate data require fast computer processing speeds, fast turn-around times as well as the ability to run multiple data sets at higher resolution to produce information that regional decision-makers need.

“Climate research and downscaling methods will no longer be limited to the hardware and software,” he said, trying but failing to contain his excitement.

SPARKS also puts Jamaica and the UWI way ahead of their counterparts in the English-speaking Caribbean and on par with some of the leading institutions in the developed world. This improvement in computing capacity is an asset for attracting more high-level staff and attracting students from outside the region. Crucially, it aids the university’s push to establish itself as a leading research-based institution and a world leader in medicinal marijuana research.

“This opens up the research capability, an area the university has not done in the past. Before now, the processing of big data could only be done with partners overseas,” Professor Taylor said.

Aside from its importance to crunching climate data for the IPCC reports, SPARKS is revolutionising DNA sequencing, medicinal, biological and other data driven research being undertaken at the University. More importantly, UWI researchers agree that a supercomputer is bringing together the agencies at the forefront of the regional climate fight.

What is clear, SPARKS is a “game-changer and a big deal” for climate research at the regional level and for UWI’s research community.

END

New Approach to Funding Tertiary Education: Shaping the 21st Century Mona Campus

KINGSTON: Nov 2016 [MONA News}: The leadership of The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, is on a mission to make this the region’s most modern and sought-after institution, using a development model which could become the go-to for other campuses and institutions.

In recent years, there have been several changes: a new medical building, new halls of residence, restaurants and banking facilities. Strapped for cash but determined not to borrow, Mona’s Principal Professor Archibald McDonald and his team are pursuing a series of public/private Partnerships that have breathed new life into the 68 year-old institution.

The slow steady pace of development is being ramped up: old buildings are giving way to new ones, old facilities refreshed and equipment upgraded. The plans are as ambitious as they are optimistic and expensive, but the University is racing full speed ahead. Surprisingly, the institution is not spending a single cent. Speaking with Mona Magazine recently, Professor McDonald outlined a raft of initiatives that aim to reshape the sprawling Mona Campus into an ultra-modern institution offering its students a world-class education in line with corporate needs, the very best in accommodation, student services and comfort.

Mona’s student housing development model is now seen as the standard for cash-strapped colleges and institutions, and is to be rolled out across the entire UWI system. Who would have known that a rather contentious induction speech just over three years ago would result in a prolific and rewarding relationship between the Mona Campus and the private sector.

“During my induction speech I noted that governments over the years had not done enough for the University… and I challenged the private sector to do more. It has paid off,” Professor McDonald said with a chuckle. He noted that the “relationship between the private sector and the university has never been closer”. On one hand, UWI is getting what it needs in development: technological and industry support through several Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) and Private/Public Partnerships, while the investors salve their corporate responsibility needs and makes a profit.

A partnership between The UWI, Mona and 138 Student Living – a subsidiary of K-Limited – to refurbish, remodel and operate its halls of residence, has revolutionised the management of student housing. Irvine Hall is being refurbished, demolishing some of the old buildings to make way for new ones, adding another 1,100 rooms to bring world-class accommodation and ‘home comforts’ to campus living. And this is only the beginning.

The agreement for the construction of 1,584 houses at a cost of $4 billion over three years should increase the number of rooms on the Mona Campus to about 6,000. The first 480 units have already been delivered, 500 will be handed over soon and the balance, scheduled for handover in 2017. This makes the University the largest single owner of ‘hotel’ rooms on the island.

“Because of the cash flow problems we have not been able to maintain the facilities properly, so outsourcing gives us the opportunity to do the renovations which are necessary and have world-class accommodation for our students,” Professor McDonald explained.

New housing is only one component of the overall strategy to increase revenues, Mona’s principal continued: “We are trying to increase the number of international students. It has been slow, but what we have done is to attract more regional students especially from Trinidad and Tobago. Whenever you bring students from outside of Jamaica, you need to provide accommodation for them”.

K Limited and UWI’s other partners will recover their investments from the savings and earnings. Ambitious as this is, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The next three to five years will see major changes on Campus, among them the conversion of the 15-room Mona Visitors’ Lodge & Conference Centre into a 150-room hotel; and the development of College Common. Replacing the Mona Visitors’ Lodge will improve the offerings at what is already a “very nice place for weddings” to provide modern conference facilities and a one-of-a-kind wedding location.

Over at College Common, the UWI-owned residential property, things are about to change. The 100-acre property which is currently home to some of the University’s senior academic and adminstrative staff, is a laid-back community of colonial-style homes on up to an acre of land. Its current layout makes it difficult to secure and maintain, Professor McDonald said, noting: “College Common has been there for 60-odd years, it is exactly as the British left it, only it is much worse as the houses are in disrepair.”

A mix of town houses, apartments and up-scale homes, some of which will be offered as high-end rentals to companies and Embassies, will replace the run-down old houses, provide staff with updated facilities and the university with much-needed revenue to continue funding the extensive development plans that are being rolled out.

There is no doubt this project could reap big benefits. After all, the Mona Campus sits on some prime lands, in a coveted zip code. And pulling everything together, an ultra-modern Campus/Student centre housing a modern auditorium for university functions including the annual graduation exercise, the housing of the students’ union, a place where students meet, study or just hang out. In addition to the coffee shops, meeting and reading rooms, the centre is expected to be a hub of activity for the 18,000 students on roll.

But plans would not be complete without an adequate supply of water and cost-effective energy. In fact, the co–generation plant that is already cooling several of the buildings on campus will also provide electricity. Once completed, the plant is expected to only reduce the campus’ dependence on the national grid, and slash energy costs by as much as 50 percent – that translates to roughly $50 million dollars in monthly savings.

In addition, the University’s well-publicised water woes are about to disappear. A new well providing 750,000 gallons a day will more than satisfy the campus’ 500,000-gallon daily requirement, saving an additional $20 million in water charges. With all these coming together, Professor McDonald is delighted.

“If you were to look at our audited statements we would not be able to afford all of this,” he said. But the private/public partnership agreements have allowed the University to improve campus facilities and the value of the services on offer.

“I see this as a new model for the funding of tertiary education,” McDonald said, noting that institutions need money to stay competitive amidst growing competition.

And how much will all this development cost? On the conservative side, more than US$2 billion. What is important, however, is that The University will not spend ‘one red cent’, as the saying goes. As Professor McDonald puts it, Corporate Jamaica is finally seeing the value of partnering with the institution.

The benefits are mutual, ranging from product design, development and testing to skills transfer, professional development and income generation; and for students, industry-specific training, internships and scholarships.

Investors including local corporations like the Jamaica Public Service, the French giant Total, and US marijuana company CITIVA, all fund projects that improve their products and outputs, and add to their bottom line. And the improvements to the Mona Campus are not all.

Over at the University Hospital of the West Indies, in addition to the installation of a fully computerised medical filing system, slated for completion early next year, architectural designs for a major rebuilding project are on the ‘drawing board’. Several buildings will be demolished and replaced, Professor McDonald said.

This year, as the University prepares to begin clinical trials of marijuana extracts to treat epilepsy in children and chronic pain; the expansion and relocation of the Western Jamaica Medical Campus has begun and negotiations are underway for the construction of a modern medical facility on the site of the new campus to take advantage of the growing medical tourism market.

Even so, The UWI Mona continues to look for ways to leverage the many opportunities available, with entrepreneurs with the acumen and fortitude to take up the challenges. Take the Usain Bolt Track for instance. There are plans for a gym and winter sports centre around the state-of-the art running track.

“We just need someone to manage the process, but then that might be for my successor,” Professor McDonald said thoughtfully.

And there are so many things to do. With world-class athletes and universities lining up to experience the training that made the ‘Big Man’ a legend – and the opportunities presented by an Olympic-sized swimming pool –Mona’s standing as the home of the athlete dubbed the ‘Living Legend” is destined to soar.

-Zadie Neufville