Dengue has been a shadow in Matheo Seleone’s life for as long as he can remember. New Caledonia has always had outbreaks. But his first memory of its true devastation goes back to 1987.
Matheo remembers the modest garden his neighbour would tend, with taro plants growing where the waste water collected. One day the man began to grow sick with the symptoms of dengue.
“He was always in his garden … I know that he died because of dengue,” recalls Matheo.
Common symptoms of dengue include fever, rash, nausea and aches and pains, lasting up to a week. But some people – people like Matheo’s neighbour – can develop complications that can result in internal bleeding, shock and even death.
“Because of the experience I lived, I never wish to get this virus again”
Matheo’s neighbour’s passing was his first experience of dengue, but it wasn’t his last. He eventually contracted the virus himself.
“I felt strange, very weak. I didn't have a sense of taste. Also drinking water was strange, I couldn't breathe … I wasn't hungry for two weeks, I lost my appetite, I felt bad in my body,” he says.
One day after first growing unwell, Matheo went to work. It was here that his symptoms put his life in danger.
Matheo’s accident is a reminder that dengue impacts every part of a person’s life, from their health and wellbeing to their ability to work and earn a living. The impacts also spread far beyond the person who is sick – those who are caring for them also face disruption. After recovering from his illness and fall, Matheo was determined to avoid dengue – and support his community to do the same.
“After I recovered from dengue I promised myself to never get it again. Some people die because maybe we have not warned them, or informed them enough. Some of them are not aware of the danger and continue doing what they have to do, ignoring the fact that they are exposed to the virus.”
Welcoming Wolbachia: a solution to dengue arrives in New Caledonia
A few years ago, Matheo heard people in his community talking about the World Mosquito Program’s Wolbachia method – a safe, natural solution to tackling the spread of dengue and other mosquito borne diseases.
“I think I remember hearing about the project on television. They explained the project, that they would be releasing some mosquitoes that would reproduce with the other mosquitoes … I hoped that this method could help us eradicate mosquito-borne diseases,” he says.
Mosquitoes that carry Wolbachia, a bacteria found in 50% of all insects, are unable to easily grow viruses inside their bodies. This greatly reduces their ability to spread mosquito-borne diseases between humans. As Wolbachia is passed down to a mosquito’s offspring, Wolbachia mosquitoes gradually become the dominant mosquito in a community. This means that epidemics of dengue become a thing of the past.
After learning there was a simple way to protect his community from the threat of dengue, Matheo immediately offered to help the World Mosquito Program to monitor the spread of Wolbachia mosquitoes by hosting a mosquito trap.
“I wasn’t involved in the mosquito release, but I saw the official release on television. I accepted to take a mosquito trap in my home because I wanted to help the program, give my small contribution to help WMP work faster and achieve their objective faster,” he says.
New Caledonia’s dengue-free future
The World Mosquito Program began Wolbachia mosquito releases in Nouméa in 2019. Two years on, the city has had no outbreaks, and has recently expanded into the neighbouring cities of Mt Dore and Dumbea. And there are plans to take the method nation-wide.
Matheo’s community is now the safest from dengue that it’s ever been – but he wants to see the solution spread even wider.
“I am very satisfied with the Wolbachia method, if each of us invests a bit in the program, then we could stop using other dangerous spreading methods. I am small, I am just one, but I think I made an important contribution to helping the scientists working on the project … If there is a collective fight in the country to overcome this, I'm ready to move my whole neighbourhood to raise awareness, prevent and inform the population to fight against the dengue disease.”