Belgian researchers – including biologists from AfricaMuseum – will begin monitoring the presence of tiger mosquitoes in Belgium. Although native to Southeast Asia, the mosquito is spreading closer here, carrying viruses that can cause diseases like dengue or Zika fever.
Globalization and climate change have allowed these exotic mosquitoes – one of the 100 most invasive species – to gain a foothold in southern Europe. Now they are moving into our regions. For the next three years, scientists from the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and AfricaMuseum will be monitoring the potential entry points of tiger mosquitoes into the country. Early detection will make it easier to fight them and reduce the risk of their establishment in Belgium.
The tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) is small, quick, and has white stripes. Its bites are not only painful, but can transmit viral diseases such as dengue fever, Chikungunya fever, and Zika fever. Native to Southeast Asia, the tiger mosquito has spread in recent years to southern Europe and Africa through the international transport of goods, climate change, and its own capacity for adaptation. Today it can be found in Alsace, and its area of distribution is gradually expanding northwards in Europe. ITM has already found a few specimens in Belgium but to date, it seems they have not survived winter conditions and/or have not reproduced. The Netherlands reports the same findings.
Wim Van Bortel, a researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp and coordinator of the MEMO (Monitoring of Exotic Mosquitoes in Belgium) project, said ‘We know that there is a high risk that these exotic mosquitoes will enter the country, and that is why we will be on alert. The faster we detect their entry points, the better we can fight them.’
The scientists will concentrate on 23 entry points around the country, ranging from ports and airports to tyre-fitting and gardening centres, as tiger mosquito eggs often travel in secondhand tyres (in water stagnating there) or with lucky bamboo (in the water used to transport the plants).
The presence of a few specimens in Belgium does not mean that we must brace ourselves for an outbreak of viruses. As Van Bortel says, ‘The tiger mosquito is not dangerous in itself. It can only carry a virus once it has bitten an infected person. Most of the time, viruses like dengue or Zika only enter the country through someone who is infected. For the virus to be transmitted, the infected person has to be near a tiger mosquito that decides to bite them first before biting someone else. In other words, there is little risk of transmission via mosquito bites as long as the tiger mosquito population remains limited.’
Quick and accurate identification
Through the ‘Barcoding of Organisms and Tissues of Policy Concern’ (BopCo) service, a team co-managed by the RBINS and AfricaMuseum, our researchers will confirm the identification of mosquitoes. Marc De Meyer, a biologist at AfricaMuseum, explains. ‘Identifying an insect based on its appearance alone is not always easy. When you’re dealing with eggs or larvae, it’s even harder, if not outright impossible. We therefore use genetic tools like DNA barcoding so that when the ITM provides us with a specimen, we can make a quick and accurate identification of the species to which it belongs.’