Northern Territory medical entomologist Peter Whelan has been monitoring, catching and controlling mosquitoes for 40 years as the front-line chief of a relentless surveillance war against potentially deadly exotic diseases.
Story By Kerry Sharp
Peter Whelan is thousands of kilometres away from home, jetting into Cairns in north Queensland for his latest rendezvous with fellow combatants waging war against an unwelcome exotic infiltrator. The Asian tiger mosquito – aptly named ‘the barbecue stopper’ – was discovered on the Torres Strait Islands off Cape York about six years ago. The Northern Territory’s chief medical entomologist was invited to join an elite Queensland Health technical advisory team assembled to devise strategies to stop it reaching mainland Australia.
“The campaign’s been highly successful so far,” Peter says. “We’ve been eliminating the mosquito and its eggs from around all main Torres Strait transport hubs, and treating all possible breeding receptacles, to stop it getting onto boats or planes.”
‘Mossie guru’ Peter Whelan is a household name in the north where he takes to the airwaves regularly to warn locals to cover up against the latest airborne disease-carrier to rear its head. That’s usually around peak hatching times after super high tides and heavy rainfall. He’s media-savvy and he knows his stuff.
The nationally respected field scientist and his team work from a modest lab at Royal Darwin Hospital, but routinely breach their comfort zones to get mossies under their microscopes. A regular data-collecting sortie can mean wading knee-deep through murky tidal swamps while keeping guard for crocodiles and dodging wild bats, rats, pooing parrots and hidden snakes. Peter’s also done plenty of ‘biting catches’, which means venturing bare-legged into prime mossie haunts and enticing the blood-suckers to zero in on your skin – then snaring them before they can sink the proboscis in.
“In the early days, we’d go into the swamps at sundown with little tubes and paper cups and spend 15 minutes each at different sites, collecting and counting the mossies that landed on us,” Peter says. “We had to time it just right to suck them up before they bit us. These days, we put out carbon dioxide traps in the evening and pick them up in the morning. There’s no pain!”
This story excerpt is from Issue #82
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2012