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Zika virus: Tech firms to battle killer mosquitoes to a halt

American technology companies are bringing automation and robotics to the age-old task of battling mosquitoes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika virus, and other mosquito-borne maladies worldwide, according to media report.

According to Reuters, the firms including Microsoft Corp and California life sciences company, Verily, are forming partnerships with public health officials in several U.S. states to test new high-tech tools that will serve to battle the spread of Zika virus and killer mosquitoes to a halt.

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The Zika epidemic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thousands of babies suffering from birth defects has added urgency to the effort of providing tech solution.

While cases in Brazil have slowed markedly, Nigeria has been confirmed to be at risk of the mosquitoes carrying the virus – Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus.

Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Folorunso Adewole, had said the mosquitoes carrying Zika virus are in Nigeria and urged that Nigerians protect themselves by using mosquito treated nets.

“Nigerian scientists working in Western Nigeria in 1954 discovered Zika virus in Nigeria. Further studies in the years 1975 to 1979 showed that 40 per cent of Nigeria adults and 25 per cent of Nigerian children have antibodies to Zika virus, meaning they are protected against this virus.

“Despite the fact that some Nigerians are immune to the Zika virus infection as demonstrated by previous studies, it is important and advisable that Nigerians should be careful and protect themselves from mosquito bites,” the minister said at a press briefing.

“There is no vaccine for Zika virus, and no cure other than rest, plenty of fluids and perhaps over-the-counter medication to reduce fevers, aches and pains as previously mentioned. This, therefore, means that prevention is most effective means of preventing transmission,” the minister further stated.

While it may take years for the new tech solution against the killer mosquitoes and mosquito-borne maladies to become widely available, public health experts say new players bring fresh thinking to vector control, which still relies heavily on traditional defenses such as larvicides and insecticides.

“It’s exciting when technology companies come on board,” said Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, adding: “Their approach to a biological challenge is to engineer a solution”.

For instance, in Texas, Microsoft is testing a smart trap to isolate and capture Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known Zika carriers, for study by entomologists to give them a jump on predicting outbreaks.

Also, Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences division based in Mountain View, California, is speeding the process for creating sterile male mosquitoes to mate with females in the wild, offering a form of birth control for the species.

The mosquito traps made by Microsoft, roughly the size of large birdhouses, use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help health officials keep tabs on potential disease carriers.

Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers – moths, flies, other mosquito varieties – leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through.

The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: the shadows cast by their beating wings.

When a trap detects an Aedes aegypti in one of its 64 chambers, the door slams shut.

The machine “makes a decision about whether to trap it,” said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the device.

The tests, begun last summer, showed the traps could detect Aedes aegypti and other medically important mosquitoes with 85 percent accuracy, Jackson said.

The traps are prototypes now, but Microsoft’s Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps.

The goal is to spur wide adoption, particularly in developing countries, to detect potential epidemics before they start.

“What we hope is (the traps) will allow us to bring more precision to public health,” Jackson said.


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