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Health hazard looms as billions of flies engulf one of Sudan’s biggest cities

Close-up image of a fly
Fly infestations can be as damaging as locust or mosquito outbreaks, experts say - Marcel Pasveer/iStockphoto

One of Sudan’s biggest cities has been struck by a fly infestation of a size and intensity never seen before.

Port Sudan, the northeast African country’s main seaport and the source of 90 per cent of its international trade, faces a looming health crisis as billions of flies infiltrate homes, offices and food supplies.

“This is the worst outbreak in Port Sudan in history,” Professor Ayman Ahmed of the Institute of Endemic Diseases, University of Khartoum, told the Telegraph. “The entire city is infested.”

The infestation follows a mass migration of people to the port city after vicious fighting broke out in the capital Khartoum earlier this year, swelling its population to over 500,000.

The city has started to buckle under the strain, with overcrowding and poor sanitation creating the perfect environment for the faeces-loving Musca fly – better known as the “house fly” – to breed in.

“They thrive anywhere where there are poor sanitary conditions,” said Professor Richard Wall, a veterinary entomologist at the University of Bristol. “They need organic waste, to feed on and to breed”.

A tea set sits abandoned in Port Sudan as a fly infestation engulfs the city
A tea set sits abandoned in Port Sudan as a fly infestation engulfs the city - Twitter

The infestation has become so intense in Port Sudan that performing basic activities such as sitting, eating and working have become near impossible.

Pictures from the city show markets selling bread and tea covered in flies, while in video clips people can be seen batting swarms away in vain.

Fly infestations are little written about in global health, but can be as damaging as locust or mosquito outbreaks, experts say.

The Musca fly, which adapted to human habitations centuries ago, are efficient vectors for diseases including typhoid and cholera.

In the early mid-1800s and early 1900s, fly infestations caused crippling epidemics in London and New York.

“Plagues and deaths around me fly, Till he please, I cannot die,” wrote Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon in 1866, amid a cholera outbreak in London’s East End that killed over 5,500 people.

Billions of the insects have landed in the city
Billions of the insects have landed in the city, making eating, walking and working impossible - Ayman Ahmad

The house fly is such a good transmitter of disease it has even been used as a weapon of war.

In World War Two, Japan’s notorious biological warfare programme, known as Unit 731, developed ceramic bombs containing flies and Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which causes cholera.

They were dropped onto the Chinese city of Baoshan, with the flies spreading cholera throughout the country’s Yunnan province.

Almost as many people were killed in the resulting epidemic as the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The flies feed on rotting and decaying matter, including faeces, and can multiply at an astonishing rate if left unchecked.

Poor sanitation, overcrowding and warm and wet weather provide the perfect conditions for fly populations to quickly spiral out of control.

“They lay 100 to 200 eggs every time they breed, and they breed every five days or so,” said Professor Wall. “They will remain in high populations as long as conditions are correct. They will persist”.

Dough is left abandoned in a bakery after flies contaminated the produce
Dough is left abandoned in a bakery after flies contaminated the produce - Twitter

The Musca fly spreads disease by accumulating bacteria, viruses or parasites within their oesophagus and digestive system and regurgitating them in human foods or open wounds.

The microscopic hairs on their legs and bodies can also trap and spread pathogens.

Five million people are currently internally displaced in Sudan, many of them crowded into refugee camps that do not have waste disposal systems or access to hygienic facilities.

The weather in Port Sudan has been unusually warm and humid in recent weeks, something Professor Ahmed linked to climate change.

“Overpopulation, limited surfaces, and climate change in terms of heavy rain and humidity, means this outbreak is worse than any we have seen before. It’s a combination of man-made and natural situations, and war and conflict.”

According to Professor Ahmed, there have already been over 5,000 cases of cholera in the region and 200 deaths, as well as cases of dengue and dysentery.

“The infestation is high density, it’s covered every surface around including food, even people’s bodies and everywhere. It’s gotten out of control.”

Poor sanitation has provided the perfect conditions for the insects to flourish
Poor sanitation has provided the perfect conditions for the insects to flourish - Ayman Ahmad

Authorities in Port Sudan have closed the main market and are trying to fight back by spraying pesticides from planes flying over the city.

“So far they have used aircraft spraying, which is not an effective way to control fly infestations, because most of this infestation is coming from waste material, indoors and outdoors. It requires, first of all, proper waste management,” Professor Ahmed said.

Flies can also develop resistance to pesticides where they are overused. It also needs to be applied directly, rather than sprayed from above, he said.

Professor Wall said that there is little individuals can do to seek refuge from flies as unlike with mosquitos, sheltering under a net is not an effective way to keep safe.

The only way to solve the spiralling situation is to fix the issues of sewage and food waste, he said.

“In these sorts of situations, there are usually so many problems that this is one more added to the list. There are refugee populations, poverty, poor sanitation, and overcrowding. And then on top of that, you’ll get flight-transmitted disease. It will result in major problems.”

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