Maps, Mosquitoes and Medicine

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

a group of people in a tanzanian village

By Shauna Han and Iryna Abramchuk
Special Guest Writers

Having her research project eaten by a family of dragonflies might seem absurd, but for Dr. Manisha Kulkarni, an Associate Professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa, it’s an occupational hazard. As a medical entomologist, she studies the propagation of disease through insects and has quickly learned that “you kind of have to learn to roll with the punches when you’re doing this type of work”. 

Dr. Kulkarni heads the INSIGHT Research Lab, an acronym that stands for Interdisciplinary Spatial Informatics for Global Health.  As the name suggests, the scientists at INSIGHT combine health research with the study of underlying geographic factors to gain unique knowledge about the spread of disease.

This knowledge can lead to policies that improve interventions, minimize resource wastage and, ultimately, contain the spread of disease.

“We're providing the knowledge and the information that people can use to make decisions,” explains Dr. Kulkarni, who won uOttawa’s 2019 Basic Sciences Researcher of the Year award.

The subjects of Dr. Kulkarni’s investigations range from the transmission of Zika virus in South America; to Lyme disease prevalence in Eastern Ontario; to the environmental determinants of maternal health in Ethiopia. She also studies how global changes can promote spillover of pathogens from wildlife to humans, as we’ve seen with SARS-CoV-2, to predict hotspots of disease emergence. But the backbone of her research is her work on malaria transmission in Tanzania.

For the past few years, nets treated with a type of insecticide known as pyrethroids have proven effective in controlling malaria. While deadly to insects, pyrethroids have low toxicity for mammals and birds. 

However, in certain regions of Tanzania, mosquitoes have recently developed resistance to pyrethroids and the disease is surging back.

Researchers are considering ways to thwart these resistant vectors, either by using novel insecticides, or by adding synergists — chemicals that enhance the potency of the existing pyrethroid insecticides. 

Dr. Kulkarni is currently conducting a four-year project in collaboration with the Pan-African Malaria Vector Research Consortium (PAMVERC) on the effectiveness of nets treated with the synergist piperonyl butoxide (PBO) in controlling malaria transmitted by pyrethroid-resistant mosquitoes. 

The nets were deployed in 2018 to regions with a high density of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. The ongoing study will evaluate the nets’ impact on malaria prevalence, transmission rates and the density of mosquito vector populations.  

“If results are really positive towards some of these new next-generation nets, it could affect global policy,” Dr. Kulkarni says. 

With prospects for large-scale distribution of these next-generation nets, this research has the potential to contain the spread of malaria in Eastern Africa, and outsmart an adaptive arthropodal foe.

Shauna Han and Iryna Abramchuk are 4th year Faculty of Medicine students in the Honours Bachelor of Science Program in Translational and Molecular Medicine. They wrote this story originally for their Science Communications course as part of a series profiling researchers at the Faculty of Medicine.

The course is designed and taught by Dr. Kristin Baetz, interim assistant dean, research and special projects and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, to foster in students the ability to convey complex science to a lay audience – an essential skill when making presentations, applying for grants, composing abstracts for research papers and generally communicating one’s work in the biomedical sciences.

MedPoint will be publishing stories from this series throughout 2020 .

Dr. Manisha Kulkarni stands in a Tanzanian village.

Dr. Manisha Kulkarni studies malaria transmission in Tanzania.

Dr. Manisha Kulkarni speaks with a woman in a Tanzanian village.

Dr. Manisha Kulkarni's project deploys next-generation nets in regions with large populations of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes.


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