In May, Bill Gates stuck his arm on the opening of a box full of mosquitos. “Within a few minutes by arm swelled up with dozen of bites. It was a small price to pay for an amazing project that has the potential to turn the tide against a terrible disease,” wrote Bill on www.gatesnotes.com. The “amazing project” was the Eliminate Dengue Project at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta financed by the Tahija Foundation. The mosquitoes that bit the world’s richest man would have given him dengue, except for a special bacteria inside them that blocked the virus, making their bite annoying but harmless.
It was a dramatic demonstration of the progress that the Tahija Foundation has made in its long effort to eliminate dengue, which is found throughout Indonesia. In Yogyakarta, about 1 in every 700 residents are striken with the disease, which has no cure. The project to create dengue-free mosquitos is being conducted in six countries, but the one sponsored by the Tahija Foundation in Indonesia is the largest in the world.
“We are the pioneer in the world since no one can conduct this project on such a large scale as in Indonesia. We believe we could do something to better mankind, and improve scientific research in Indonesia,” says Sjakon George Tahija, one of the founders and trustee board member of the Tahija Foundation, in a rare interview. He takes special pride in recent progress because the foundation’s efforts for many years has been marked by frustration and few achievements.
The traditional way to fight dengue is to try to wipe out its breeding places, such as water containers. However, this approach is problematic.
In 2010, Sjakon, 62, asked the foundation’s consultant on tropical diseases, Duke-NUS Professor Duane Gubler, to suggest another approach. He recommended the foundation set up an Indonesian branch of the Eliminate Dengue Project (EDP), which was started by Scott O’Neill, a professor at Monash University in Australia. The EDP’s strategy is to infect mosquitoes with the wolbachia bacteria. This bacteria, which is present in 70% of all insects, including bees and flies, effectively blocks three diseases: dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya fever.
However, wolbachia is not naturally found in aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the type of mosquito that spread dengue, so they must be injected with wolbachia. Then these injected mosquitoes can be released into nature, which will then spread the bacteria to untreated mosquitoes through breeding. The goal is to stop dengue by spreading wolbachia to all aedes aegypti mosquitoes. This approach, rather than kill mosquitoes, will neutralize the threat posed by them. “The impact is not less than the discovery of vaccines or antibiotics since wolbachia can block three kind of diseases,” says Sjakon. The Tahija Foundation has so far spent $8 million to support the EDP.