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World Mosquito Day August 20, 2021

Women in Entomology. From the Field to the Lab, Women Fight to End Malaria

This World Mosquito Day, the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative VectorLink Project spotlights a few of the women behind the microscopes and in the field helping to reduce the burden of malaria.

Here at the PMI VectorLink Project, ending malaria is our ultimate goal. To reach that goal, we must kill and repel the mosquitoes that spread the deadly disease. Each year we partner with National Malaria Control Programs and communities to conduct indoor residual spraying (IRS) and help to distribute insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) to reduce the burden of malaria.

With IRS, we spray the walls, ceilings, and other areas where mosquitoes rest inside people’s homes with an insecticide that kills the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. The insecticide used in ITNs also helps to kill and repel mosquitoes while providing a physical barrier for people while they are sleeping to protect them from the bite of mosquitoes. To ensure IRS and ITNs remain effective, we must learn everything we can about those pesky mosquitoes and the insecticides that kill them. That’s why entomological monitoring is so important.

With our country partners, we identify, study, and record where malaria-transmitting mosquitoes live, how they feed, when they rest, and the density of their population. We monitor the quality of spraying as well as the length of time the sprayed insecticides remain effective. Before choosing and procuring the insecticides for a spray campaign, we measure the susceptibility of the mosquitoes to insecticides. We also study the durability of the ITNs that we distribute so we know how long the ITNs hold up and how effective they are.

Trained and well-experienced entomologists are key to building strong, national entomological monitoring systems. Where possible, PMI VectorLink hires trained entomologists to coordinate and lead entomological activities in the project countries. In countries lacking trained entomologists, PMI VectorLink provides extensive training on basic entomological monitoring, with a focus on practical demonstrations and field exercises. Trainees are supplied with the necessary equipment and deployed to conduct field work under the direct supervision of experienced entomologists before being allowed to work independently.

Gains in reducing morbidity and mortality from malaria depend on the use of effective insecticides in vector control measures, such as IRS and ITNs. With more people qualified to carry out entomological monitoring, PMI is equipping country partners with the tools and knowledge needed to fight this deadly disease. This World Mosquito Day, PMI VectorLink celebrates the women in science who find, share, and use entomological evidence to fight malaria in their own countries. Scroll to read about a few of them.

Visualization of molecular lab analysis allows entomologists like Dr. Seynabou Diedhiou to track mosquito species composition, infectivity (with the malaria parasite), and insecticide resistance gene frequency over time. Identifying trends and patterns can help inform which vector control tools to use to ensure the most effective means of controlling malaria.

SENEGAL - Dr. Seynabou Diedhiou, Research Associate with the Laboratory of Vector and Parasite Ecology at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. PhD in Biology, Productions and Animal Pathologies with a specialty in Entomology from the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar

Since 2018, Seynabou has led molecular studies for PMI VectorLink Senegal. She works to identify the species of mosquitoes collected in the field, detect plasmodium infection (a parasite that causes malaria) in mosquito vectors, and identify the source of blood taken by the vectors (humans or animals). She also carries out enzyme immunoassay activities to determine resistance of malaria vectors to particular insecticides.

Resistance markers and enzyme detection help point to the frequency of mutation within the mosquitoes, which is important data when planning a malaria control strategy so country partners can choose the most appropriate vector control tools.

Long interested in the fight against pathogens that cause human diseases, Seynabou’s studies in biology have allowed her to participate in this important fight for humanity.

“Fighting against human diseases and producing knowledge that contributes to informed decision making for health policies to address public health problems is what I always wanted."

Seynabou likes to share her knowledge by training people and helping them to move forward. While she hasn't encountered any problems as a woman in her entomological research activities, she sometimes finds men reluctant to be led by a woman. She also said that there can be social constraints because it is difficult to manage family and work at the same time.

“The progression of our scientific career plan even becomes difficult under these conditions,” she said.

When asked what advice she’d give to young women interested in entomology, she said that like all fields of research, entomology requires many sacrifices.

“A woman can make good progress in medical entomology; she just needs to be sure of her choice. If we believe in ourselves, we can do it.”

She said that while work contributes to her financial security, her professional life is also an environment of exchange, discovery, and flourishing.

“Through work, I seek to be part of those female leaders who are serving the population to change things and who are showing other women that anything is possible.”

Regina Ama Nicol uses a mouth aspirator to sort mosquitoes that will be used for cone assays to monitor the decay rate of the insecticide sprayed on wall surfaces.

SIERRA LEONE - Regina Ama Nicol, Entomology Field/Insectary Technician, Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone

At university, the head of Regina’s department was a female entomologist. “She gave fascinating lectures on how insects are small but mighty because they are important and contribute greatly to science and non-science fields,” said Regina. "Working in entomology gives me a sense of satisfaction that I am making use of the positive aspect of the relationship between insects, humans, and the environment for development while also trying to change the negative aspect of this relationship to that of a success story through research.”

Regina said that what she finds most interesting about being an entomology technician with PMI VectorLink is rearing mosquitoes and using them for ITN, wall bioassays, and susceptibility testing to determine the efficacy of insecticides.

As insecticide resistance grows in malaria vector populations, testing the bioefficacy of insecticides used to kill mosquitoes is increasingly important to reducing the malaria burden.

Regina said that she learns daily from her job, which helps to inform procurement and vector control strategy decisions to fight malaria.

Chitan Keita distributes mouth aspirators to entomology technicians. The technicians will use the aspirators to transfer and expose mosquitoes to the sprayed walls and collect them back in paper cups during wall assays to monitor the residual efficacy of the sprayed insecticide for malaria control.

MALI - Chitan Keita, Assistant Entomologist, Diploma of Advanced Study in Applied Microbiology and PhD Student in Medical Entomology from the University of Bamako in Mali

Chitan Keita decided to work in entomology out of duty and passion. “Since I was young, I have had severe malaria two to three times a year with hallucinations and severe anemia. I am curious to know the cause of this disease which tires me so much,” she said.

From 2008 to 2012, Chitan interned at the Entomo-parasitology unit of the Laboratory of Applied Molecular Biology, Faculty of Sciences and Techniques of the University of Bamako. Now working for the PMI VectorLink Project in Mali, Chitan studies and monitors the behavior and dynamics of insect vector populations, the interactions between parasites and their vectors, as well as their resistance to insecticides. Identifying which mosquitoes carry the parasite and at what proportion helps entomologists estimate transmission levels for the area. This in turn can help local governments decide on where to target their malaria control interventions.

Throughout her career, there have been colleagues, relatives, friends, and even local partners who have discouraged her from a career in entomology and told her that the job isn’t suitable for a woman.

“There have been entomology technicians who had a hard time accepting me as their leader in the field,” she said. "I have cried often when faced with certain situations but haven’t gotten discouraged or given up. I had to show everyone that a woman is also capable of excelling in all areas dominated by men.”

She said that these challenges have pushed her to master and supervise all the different entomological activities that we carry out in the field.

“I urge women, especially the younger ones, to embrace and assert themselves in this very exciting field. For me, this work is a source of comfort on the material and intellectual levels. I feel free and fulfilled.”
Louisa Antwi-Agyei is performing an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) procedure to screen mosquitoes collected in the field. This ELISA method allows her to detect Plasmodium infection (a parasite that causes malaria) in mosquito vectors.

Ghana - Louisa Antwi-Agyei, Lab Technician, Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Master’s student in parasitology at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.

Louisa's fascination of insects as a child led to a career as an entomologist. “I was curious about their life cycle, their role in the ecosystem, and the effects they have on humans,” she said. “I chose to learn more about mosquitoes because of the role they play in transmitting malaria, which is a widespread and deadly disease in Ghana."

The most interesting and intriguing part of her job, she says, is identifying the various types of mosquitoes collected from the field and detecting from mosquito samples the parasite that causes malaria.

“Fortunately, I have not faced any barriers so far in pursuing my career as a woman. My supervisors teach, encourage, and guide me to be a better person. To all the young women out there interested in entomology, I would like to tell you that you can also do it if you put your mind to it. Just believe in yourselves and your capabilities. Always bear in mind that the world is your oyster.”

Besides the work at the lab, she collects mosquitoes in the field as well. “My colleagues are always ready to lend a helping hand when I need assistance with my work,” she added. “I am privileged to help contribute to eradicating malaria in Ghana.”

Anna Mary Auma is using a microscope to examine the ovary of the mosquito to determine whether the mosquito has laid eggs at least once or not and estimate vector survival rate. The data helps to measure the impact of vector control interventions such as indoor residual spraying and distribution of insecticide treated nets on mosquito life span and malaria transmission. Mosquitoes with longer life span are more likely to be infected by malaria parasites and transmit the infection.

UGANDA - Anna Mary Auma, Entomology Field Assistant, Bachelor of Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

Before joining PMI VectorLink, Anna Mary worked with Uganda’s Ministry of Health as a Vector Control Officer for 24 years. She’s also worked on the control and elimination of several Neglected Tropical Diseases and on vectors such as mosquitoes, snails, and black flies, and the diseases they transmit, including river blindness, trachoma, intestinal worms, bilharzia, lymphatic filariasis, and malaria.

One of the most interesting aspects of her job as an Entomology Field Assistant, she says, is conducting monthly wall bioassay studies after IRS to monitor the decay rate of the insecticide sprayed on the wall surfaces. Data on how long insecticides last on sprayed surfaces helps country partners determine how long insecticide remains effective in killing the mosquitoes. The longer the insecticide lasts, the longer household members are protected from potential malaria vectors.

“The job means a lot to me. The results we get after several months of conducting wall bioassay studies guides the project on when the next IRS campaign can be implemented,” she said.

Elizabeth Ayoma performs DNA extraction from wild-caught mosquitoes that will later be used in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis to determine which species they are and whether they carry genes that confer resistance to insecticides.

KENYA - Elizabeth Ayoma, Vector Monitoring Specialist, Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science and Technology from Maseno University and Master of Science student in biotechnology

Elizabeth developed a respect for nature at an early age and has had a passion for biology for as long as she can remember. Upon completing her degree, she landed an internship in an entomological lab. “The rest of the pieces just fell into place,” she said.

One of the major challenges she’s faced is the stereotype that entomology is a man’s job since it’s traditionally a male-dominated field. “We sometimes experience some gender bias in hiring and promotion. Balancing work and family can also slow down career development leading to gaps in gaining work experience. I am glad to see most organizations, like PMI VectorLink, embracing gender diversity in their recruitment process.

Elizabeth says one of the most interesting aspects of her job as a Vector Monitoring Specialist with PMI VectorLink is seeing the differences among vectors in the various sites where the project works.

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