SEATTLE, Washington — The United States has taken substantial action both domestically and internationally to fight against vector-borne diseases (VBDs) such as Zika, West Nile, malaria, dengue and more. From the President’s Malaria Initiative to frequent mosquito net donations, the U.S. continues to provide foreign aid to populations affected by insect-borne diseases. Nootkatone is a new chemical that could help the world better fight insect-borne diseases.
Insect-borne diseases constitute 17% of infectious diseases worldwide and result in about 700,000 deaths annually. Although many developed countries provide assistance in the fight against VBDs, controlling the spread has proven difficult. In order to successfully control insect-borne diseases globally, a more nuanced approach must be realized. Fortunately, a promising chemical called nootkatone could enter the global market within the next few years and become an important tool in fighting VBDs.
In order to control insect-borne diseases, experts agree that an effective global response will require international collaboration and cooperation. This response will need to go beyond the treatment of patients and insect control by also including prevention strategies as well as the bolstering of public health infrastructure.
In spite of the international attention given to the issue, insect-borne diseases have reemerged within the last several decades. There are many factors that have enabled this resurgence:
- Insufficient public health infrastructure
- Unprecedented population growth in developing countries
- Urbanization and increased population density
- Globalization and increased travel
- Warmer global temperatures that provide more hospitable environments for insects
- Lack of sanitation services such as sewage and waste management
- Focus on killing adult mosquitoes as opposed to prevention, and
- Insect resistance to insecticides and repellents
To better address insect-borne diseases, in 2017 the World Health Organization (WHO) released a plan for its global vector control response that extends until 2030. There are many aspects to this plan including community-wide spraying of insecticides, drainage or treatment of stagnant water and use of insecticide-treated bed nets. Another recommendation the WHO makes is that people in regions affected by insect-borne diseases use topical repellents for personal protection.
Nootkatone: A Topical Repellent
Many personal repellents are on the market, the most effective of which are products that contain the chemicals DEET or picaridin. The problem with some of these chemicals is that insects, mosquitoes in particular, are building resistance to these repellents. In August of 2020, however, the EPA approved a new chemical called nootkatone for use in repellants.
There are many attributes of nootkatone that differentiate it and make it more effective than other repellents. Unlike many other repellents and pesticides, nootkatone is naturally derived and is nontoxic to humans and other mammals. This could be particularly appealing to people who avoid synthetic repellents.
Additionally, nootkatone does not lose its potency after a few hours on the skin like many other naturally derived repellents do. Lastly, the chemical has a pleasant citrusy scent which could make it more desirable for many people.
Nootkatone is not a magic potion that will eradicate diseases like malaria, but it could play a major role in the fight against insect-borne diseases. Since it comes from cedar trees and grapefruits, the production of nootkatone repellent sprays could be very affordable. This means that the chemical could be purchased cheaply and used by foreign aid projects such as the President’s Malaria Initiative to fight insect-borne diseases internationally.
Furthermore, since nootkatone is nontoxic, it can be used in a variety of ways. Experts are talking about potentially using it in bath soaps or to treat insect-repelling nets around beds. Nevertheless, since the EPA just gave it the green light of approval, nootkatone will probably not be used in products until 2022 at the earliest.
The EPA approval of nootkatone is an important step towards fighting insect-borne diseases. While the use of personal repellents is simply one tool of many in controlling insect-borne diseases, with the increased insect resistance to repellents, it could be a vital one.
– Alanna Jaffee