Dr Paul Russell, a malaria specialist who served in the Second World War, once said: “Man ploughs the sea like a leviathan, he soars through the air like an eagle; his voice circles the world in a moment, his eyes pierce the heavens; he moves the mountains, he makes the desert bloom, he has planted his flag at the North Pole and the South; yet millions of men each year are destroyed because they fail to outwit a mosquito.”
Russell is correct: elimination of the deadly infectious diseases that mosquitoes carry, such as malaria and dengue, still eludes us.
However, we have been making significant progress against these deadly infectious diseases in the Asia Pacific region. This part of the world has a genuine chance to eliminate malaria within a decade, thanks to advancements in diagnostic tools, treatments and prevention programmes.
Entomologists are crucial – but hard to find
Entomologists have been central to this progress. By studying the vectors and their bionomics, and the ecology of mosquito species and their behaviour, entomologists have been able to develop tools to control breeding patterns, population sizes and the mosquitoes’ ability to transmit diseases among human populations. This knowledge is critical to the success of the elimination programmes in the region.
Throughout the history of malaria control, from the development of indoor residual spraying (DDT) to the use of long-lasting insecticidal nets, it is entomologists who determine which vector control tools and interventions will be the most appropriate and effective in halting transmission and saving millions of lives.
Worryingly, however, Asia Pacific countries are now facing a dearth of qualified entomologists, in both programmatic and research areas.
These positions have been vacant for a long time across the region. Part of the reason is that there has been a lack of investment in the long-term career development of entomologists. At a recent working group meeting, one representative from a National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP) said: “Entomologists are now a rare species. Before malaria elimination, the elimination of entomologists has now begun. Entomologists in the field are now doing administration and paperwork of their departments, rather than conducting mosquito studies. This is not what they have been trained for.”
This is an urgent threat to the sustainability of the NMCPs and to progress towards malaria elimination – and beyond.
How APMEN can help
The Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network (APMEN) is mandated to support countries in the Asia Pacific region to achieve their malaria elimination goals. It works alongside the NMCPs and partner organisations in these countries to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and resources.
APMEN focuses on building professional networks that harness the power of collaboration, improve evidence gathering and policy recommendations, and help to develop capacity and leadership for these organisations to advance their missions.
The network delivers support to the countries through four vibrant and interconnected working groups: the Vivax Working Group (VxWG), the Surveillance and Response Working Group (SRWG), the Vector Control Working Group (VCWG), and the Program Management Working Group. These working groups serve as platforms for professionals to meet and discuss implementation-level issues and challenges. It also provides a rare opportunity for researchers and programme implementers to interact, helping to close the gap between knowledge and action, for challenges that are biological and non-biological.
In order to tackle the scarcity of entomologists, APMEN is working to develop a community of practice for vector biologists. This profession needs to be re-established so entomologists can continue to address the unanswered questions about mosquito-borne diseases. The first small step on the path towards this goal is to establish an online web platform where entomologists can engage, interact, communicate, and share knowledge and best practice.
The ORENE website
Malaria Consortium is a long-standing partner of APMEN, and has been an active member of the network. It supports the function of two working groups – VCWG and SRWG – using its technical expertise and management acumen.
Malaria Consortium was commissioned to develop a web-based resource for the network through a consultative process with experts, national programmes and intended users. The planning process included conducting an assessment, identifying key features of the website, and testing user expectations.
The website is called the Online Resource Exchange Network for Entomology – or ORENE for short (https://orene.org). It was launched in September 2019. Users can sign-up; access up-to-date technical resources, tools and guidelines; and update news, job posts and funding opportunities. It is a one-stop shop for entomologists.
Users can also reach out to experts if they have questions related to entomological research or vector control. Enrolled users can access forum discussions, where users from all the different countries share their knowledge and best practices.
During the development phase, Malaria Consortium has acted as the custodian of this collectively developed tool and will continue to keep this platform dynamic and useful, through close collaboration with APMEN members. Together we need to ensure that Orene reaches more users, that it stays abreast of developments, and that we make continual improvements based on users’ feedback. Ultimately, this tool will be handed over to APMEN members to create a community of practice and a generation of vibrant vector biologists who will lead both science and the programme.
If you have any questions related to ORENE, please write to Dr Leo Braack (Senior Vector Control Specialist, Malaria Consortium) at [email protected] or Dr. Htin Kyaw Thu (Technical Specialist, Malaria Consortium) at [email protected].
Dr Htin Kyaw Thu is Malaria Consortium’s Technical Specialist, based in Bangkok, Thailand.