Dengue has undeniably devastating impacts on those who suffer through it. What can begin as fever, rash, nausea and aches and pains can quickly devolve into internal bleeding, shock and other symptoms that require hospitalisation. Dengue disrupts the lives of those that suffer it. But it also increases pressure on hospitals, local community groups and government officials and, over time, costs local economies a staggering amount of money.
This is something the people of Nouméa know all too well.
In New Caledonia, dengue outbreaks were frequent enough that everyone from telecommunications companies and governments to food suppliers and scientists wanted to help address the problem.
The World Mosquito Program’s work in Nouméa was first funded by the initial consortium partners: the Government of New Caledonia, Institut Pasteur of New Caledonia, City of Nouméa and Monash University. After this initial agreement, the World Mosquito Program team began seeking additional support. According to Nadege Rossi, World Mosquito Program Project Manager in New Caledonia, the team would approach any organisation or authority they thought could help them reach more people with the Wolbachia method.
“The partnerships originally came from opportunity rather than a set plan. We’d see a potential need a partner could fill and then say ‘okay, this company, they could help. So, let's go and talk with them and see what happens’. When we first tried, we were not very confident about the results. At the end, we saw that everybody is very enthusiastic about this program,” says Nadege.
Here are just some of the partners helping create a dengue-free New Caledonia.
Initial consortium partners
Wolbachia mosquito releases rely on the support of our initial consortium partners: the Government of New Caledonia, City of Nouméa, Institut Pasteur of New Caledonia and Monash University.
“The City of Nouméa helps us to create a link with the population … They are organising different meetings to give information to the population, also through their social network,” says Nadege.
The Institut Pasteur is a not-for-profit scientific institute who plays a key role: they produce and check the Wolbachia mosquito strains that are released and participate in monitoring the results.
According to Dr Marc Jouan, Director of Institut Pasteur, this method has been critical in preventing the spread of dengue since releases began.
“The Institut Pasteur prepares the mosquitoes working on the preparation of the mosquitoes together with Monash University, which has developed this technology, the Directorate of Health Services, which is in charge of monitoring dengue fever outbreaks and case registration, who monitors the mapping of the transmission together with the World Mosquito Program, and the City of Nouméa, which was one of the first partners to be involved in this initiative … It is really a team work of synergies and competences,” says Marc.
“Here in New Caledonia we have regular cycles of epidemics, happening very often these last years. Since the implementation of the Wolbachia method in 2019, we have not registered new outbreaks in 2019, 2020 and 2021.”
While production is now led by Institut Pasteur, Monash University continues to be a core partner in every aspect of our work. The World Mosquito Program is a not-for-profit group of companies owned by Monash University, where Wolbachia’s story began, and they continue to be core to Wolbachia’s future in New Caledonia and beyond.
Government and authorities
Wolbachia mosquito releases rely on the support of governments and local authorities. Thankfully, the World Mosquito Program had the support of officials at all levels from both New Caledonia and France, including the French Government and the South Province.
Madame Muriel Malfar-Pauga was elected to Congress of New Caledonia and the South Province, who are financially supporting the World Mosquito Program to help protect their communities. Muriel has first-hand experience with dengue – after her election, she and six other people contracted the disease. Because Muriel was already sick with the flu, her dengue was originally missed. After red blotches began appearing on her skin, she was ordered to get a blood test. After that, her condition deteriorated.
“I was in the process of having an internal bleeding. I had hemorrhagic dengue fever and I didn't even know I had it when I arrived at the hospital,” says Muriel.
Muriel recovered, but someone she knew who didn’t attend the hospital died. When Muriel heard about the Wolbachia method, she was initially concerned with the concept of releasing more mosquitoes. But now that she knows more, she sees it as critical to public health.
“I think we really need to release more mosquitoes to save lives. This program needs to be supported by all New Caledonian institutions because this program is here to save people's lives … I want people to realise that they can die of dengue … So if I would have to make an appeal, it would be addressed to all our political representatives. They need to invest in protecting our children. We protect the future through this program”.
Julien Pailhère is the Director of the Office of the High Commissioner of France in New Caledonia. While public health is the responsibility of the New Caledonian government, Julien says France has a mandate to support the territory. They are currently supporting the work by financing the Program in Nouméa as well as the expansion in Mont-Dore and Dumbéa, with assistance from Pacific Funds.
“[Nouméa] is the first city, the first French territory to have implemented the program. The method could be of inspiration for the other French overseas territories. There are a few, I think about the French Antilles, Mayotte and the Réunion, which are really affected by epidemics, regularly affected by epidemics, against which the World Mosquito Program and the Wolbachia bacteria are fighting very specifically. I really hope that, if the program gives good results in terms of public health, to develop the project in other French overseas territories and beyond. In the times we live, skies have no borders,” says Julien.
EEC ENGIE, an energy provider in Nouméa, was one of the first organisations the team approached in 2019. The team asked EEC to help find a way to encourage their customers to accept mosquito traps into their home by providing reimbursements for the energy used by the traps. The EEC also proposed solar panels and batteries to help provide the power needed to host traps in informal settlements where there is no electricity. EEC also used their website, social networks and other communication channels to inform people about the Wolbachia method – and many EEC staff became volunteers themselves.
Philippe Mehrenberger is the Executive Director of EEC, says the company was initially drawn to how innovative the Wolbachia method is, which echoes their own work around energy and climate change.
“The approach avoids the use of chemical spraying in the municipalities, and it is a completely sustainable and green solution … When the project was presented to us we were immediately seduced,” says Philippe.
“What I found interesting is this approach of keeping us informed and the flexibility to adapt the program according to the different local needs with a very strong focus on field work … As an energy company, this was an opportunity to get involved in a strong social issue important for our municipalities.”
OPT, New Caledonia’s postal and telecommunication service, was another major partner. OPT were excited to be involved to help tackle dengue for the community. They were also interested in helping reduce the danger of mosquito breeding grounds around their sites.
“OPT gave us the opportunity to use their billboards to display the Wolbachia announcements. They have provided many mobile cards for the phone for our team and help us to save money on the field budget …They communicate a lot through their own network and social media channels [to help raise awareness about Wolbachia]. And now, we have a special rate to distribute flyers in mailboxes and in PO boxes. So, it's great because we can reach a lot of people with this simple way of communication,” says Nadege.
If having two of the territory’s major utility services wasn’t enough, the team also engaged partners to help improve the working conditions of staff. The Decathlon organisers provided backpacks and raincoats. LesEaux et les Fontaines du Mont Dore (GBNC group), agreed to help by supplying water to the World Mosquito Program and promoting the method to their customers.
GBNC’s CSR Director, Marie-Amélie Molia, is excited to see the method expand even further.
“We are very proud of the partnership with the World Mosquito Program because of its implication in the life of the local population, which for us is one of the pillars of values that drives us within the group. Participating in this innovative program that everyone is watching with the greatest attention, especially countries in Europe who are waiting for the results from the Pacific to eventually implement the program in their territories, is a source of pride,” says Marie-Amélie.
Community and social organisations
Every release by the World Mosquito Program is done in close consultation with local communities. In New Caledonia, the team has worked with members of release areas. But they’ve also connected with local community and environmental groups to ensure releases are catering to all members of the community and safe for the environment.
Rose Naporapoe is the President of the Kawati association and leader of an informal settlement in Nouméa. After contracting dengue in 1998, Rose was determined to never catch it again – and keep those in her community safe. As their settlement is at the bottom of a mangrove, the community is diligent about looking out for larvae and removing bodies of water where mosquitoes could breed.
After hearing about the Wolbachia method on television, Rose agreed to host a mosquito release container in her community.
“I agreed to take part in the project to fight against dengue because there are many children here, I am also getting old … I have caught it already in the past and I am scared for the children and for myself,” says Rose.
Pascal Wiwane lives in another informal settlement, and says that while people were initially apprehensive, his community has now welcomed Wolbachia.
“People are scared of what they don't know. We were given explanations on how the method worked and we were able to explain to the community that they should not be scared. That's why the majority of the people have agreed to receive mosquito traps or mosquito release containers …Now that we know, we can fight against this. We can quickly detect cases, react promptly to save the person in the first place, and after to make sure it does not happen again,” Pascal says.
Martine Cornaille is the President of the association Ensemble pour la Planète (EPLP), which works to protect both the environment and public health. Martine has volunteered for the organisation for 16 years and was concerned about the impact some insecticides could have on the local environment. Through their research and advocacy actions, EPLP helped identify the World Mosquito Program as an alternative method of dengue control.
“When this project was submitted we fully supported it. We have been involved in this program since the beginning and even before it existed because we have largely contributed to finding alternatives … We are completely in favour of the development of this program in other municipalities outside of the municipality of the city of Nouméa and its expansion in all other municipalities of New Caledonia,” says Martine.
Financing and community awareness are key parts of a Wolbachia mosquito release. But implementing the method is the core of our work. To help in the production and distribution of mosquitoes, the team engages several key technical partners.
Marine Brancaleoni is the Quality Manager at OCEF, who provide marketing, distribution and refrigerated storage of meat in New Caledonia. Since 2020, OCEF has supplied the World Mosquito Program with blood from cattle, which is then refrigerated and transported to the Institut Pasteur to feed mosquitoes.
“We thought it was a good idea to participate in terms of public health, and to be able to contribute to eradicating dengue in the territory and protecting the population,” says Marine.
In addition to animal blood supplied by OCEF, the World Mosquito Program also uses human blood donated to the local blood centre. People who donate blood can choose to donate the blood that cannot be used for medical purposes to the World Mosquito Program. The World Mosquito Program only uses blood which cannot be used to save lives and which would otherwise be destroyed. Prior to its use to feed Wolbachia mosquitoes, the blood is tested to ensure that it is free of any diseases.
“Mosquitoes need human blood every week. It is extra work for the staff of the blood centre and we are very grateful to them for being by our side since 2019,” says Nadege.
While mosquitoes need blood to reproduce, they also need food to live. Previously, food for larvae had to be shipped from France, which was both expensive and had a large environmental footprint. By partnering with La Provenderie de Saint-Vincent, the team were able to arrange for free food to feed their larvae, which has heavily cut costs and is better for the environment.
In a world-first for the World Mosquito Program, the team in Nouméa has managed to build more than just community support – they created a coalition of partners who donated their services, advocated for the Wolbachia method and used their own customer base to spread the word. For Nadege, the success lies not only in each partner, but also how they work together to produce the best outcome for New Caledonia.
“I think this program works very well because we have all the partners that we need to run the program properly and efficiently. It's really nice to see that the interest everybody has for this program, and they're trusting in this solution.”