Empowering communities to tackle Zika, dengue, and chikungunya
When you think of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), it’s probably sun, sea, and sand that spring to mind. But, like all tropical destinations, this popular holiday destination is not immune to the threat of mosquito-borne diseases – including dengue, Zika, and chikungunya.
We spoke with Jonathan Oakes, General Manager of BVI’s Eustatia Island and primary director of the BugOut project, and Sarina Hancock, BugOut project coordinator, to find out how the local community is taking on mosquitoes … and winning!
Over the past two years, Eustatia has seen an estimated reduction in mosquito populations of around 90 percent, thanks to consistent and thorough source reduction, larvicidal application and mosquito traps. These practices have now been incorporated into a larger program to benefit the local community under the BugOut program.
Island communities working together
The sun-soaked BVI make up the eastern island group of the Virgin Islands archipelago that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The four main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke are surrounded by another fifty or so smaller islands, with the 28,000-population inhabiting around 15 of those. Tourism accounting for almost half of the BVI’s national income; the number of tourists and cruise passengers visiting the islands every year is in the hundreds of thousands.
While some of Virgin Gorda’s smaller neighbors – Necker Island, Eustatia Island, and Moskito Island – had been fighting mosquitoes for years, Virgin Gorda itself was at higher risk of dengue and chikungunya flare ups.
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“Three or four years ago I began researching everything that is possible and rumored to be possible around fighting mosquitos,” says Jonathan. “There was a lot of misinformation and a lot of apathy, so we decided to create a program around it. We approached government officials and community leaders and everyone welcomed the concept.”
The Virgin Gorda community began working together with neighboring islands to establish innovative strategies for controlling mosquitoes.
BugOut is born
The BugOut program was born during the summer of 2015. It describes itself as a “collaborative and sustainable non-profit program for controlling mosquitoes and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases on the Island of Virgin Gorda.”
From day one, the BugOut team based its approach on three pillars:
- Community First: providing its communities and businesses with the tools and information they need to make an impact at an individual, household, family and community level
- Safe and Effective Control: using mosquito control methods, tools, and technologies that are safe and effective, without sacrificing human or environmental health
- Good Data and Fast Iterations: consulting with the best minds in the world to help build an effective program that constantly improves
Community engagement and empowerment
“Mosquito-borne diseases are not a problem that any one task force is going to solve for everyone,” says Jonathan. “Mosquitos need to be dealt with by each and every person in the community.”
To spread that message, the BugOut team visited schools, churches and other community places across Virgin Gorda. Sarina says, “We gave everyone we spoke to a list of steps to take home to pass onto their neighbors and their friends.”
BugOut has put its words into action too, arranging eight community clean-ups over the past year. Around 60 volunteers took part each time. Jonathan comments: “The success of the clean-ups is a great testament to how engaged the community is and how willing they are to donate their time and energy.”
But community involvement doesn’t stop there. Community leaders are invited to join the BugOut steering committee where they can be involved in decisions about what needs to be done. “We want to do something that is accepted by the community.”
BugOut’s community-led Steering Committee includes stakeholders from all aspects of island life: government representatives, pest control experts, social and religious leaders, medical representatives, business owners and non-profit leaders. Government representatives from various entities including Tourism, Disaster Management, Waste Management, Medical Health and Environmental Health attend and this helps channel cooperative resources towards the common goal of mosquito eradication.
Environmentally sensitive methods and technologies
Eustatia Island is proud of its self-sustainability and environmental stewardship: it produces its own power from solar, water from desalinization and its organic agriculture practices are part of a long-term effort to restore the native landscape of the island.
When it comes to pest control methods, Eustatia strives to be a responsible consumer, limiting the use of strong chemicals. Its primary larvicide, for instance, is Bacillus Thuringiensis (BTI), a natural yeast.
A resident of nearby Moskito Island and a strong supporter of BugOut, Richard Branson has offered the program his team’s wealth of knowledge on environmentally sustainable solutions in addition to funds and publicity. “Richard Branson’s head of wildlife sits on our steering committee,” says Jonathan. “He promotes natural interventions really strongly – whether it be geckos and frogs or bats or plant deterrents such as lemon grass and chamomile.”
Data-gathering made simple
The island’s 4,000 residents are also being asked to help the BugOut team collect data on the island’s mosquito populations. Using a slick mobile app based on the Magpi data collection platform users simply take a photo on their smartphone, add a description and send it out to BugOut, where the field team processes the photos as they come in. Born out of the data collection needs of the Ebola crisis, Magpi is both inexpensive and intuitive. The BugOut team then shares the processed data with two task forces in the field: BugOut’s own along with the BVI government’s own.
The BugOut team then shares the processed data with two task forces in the field: BugOut’s own along with the BVI government’s own. “When we ask government to help us clean up larger scale mosquito problems, we give them a prioritized list so their task force doesn’t have to use up valuable time locating the problem areas,” states Jonathan.
The BugOut field team is also exploring the use of Magpi to gather its own data, in place of the expensive licensed GIS mapping tools commonly used in government vector control programs. “It would be the same platform whether it’s a 12-year-old using it or our paid field agents using it to document every single residence on the island during their house to house inspections,” says Jonathan.BugOut’s field agents and field program align with the BVI government’s vector control program as part of a public-private partnership. Through careful testing and research of control methods and technologies, BugOut has been able to incorporate a strong focus on sustainability into the BVI vector control methods.
BugOut’s field agents and field program align with the BVI government’s vector control program as part of a public-private partnership. Through careful testing and research of control methods and technologies, BugOut has been able to incorporate a strong focus on sustainability into the BVI vector control methods.
While year one focused mainly on community outreach and engagement next year BugOut hopes to really step up the game on field operations, putting real scientific data behind the initiative. The team also plans to augment its efforts around education, empowerment, and clean-up with a greater focus on larvicidal control and elimination of breeding sites. Budgeted to operate on Virgin Gorda for a period of three years, one of BugOut’s major aims is to share all the information on what it’s doing – what works and what doesn’t – with the other islands.
Budgeted to operate on Virgin Gorda for a period of three years, one of BugOut’s major aims is to share all the information on what it’s doing – what works and what doesn’t – with the other islands.“We want to be an open book,” says Jonathan.
“We want to share information that can benefit other communities as well. That’s important because people often shy away from showing any weaknesses or downfalls on projects with a public face.”
Jonathan and Sarina hope that doing so will enable other communities to follow in their footsteps.