2019 August: Mosquito Spray Trial Halted (Mornington Peninsula, Victoria). Pesticide: Bifenthrin

Buruli ulcer mosquito spray trial halted amid pesticide, bee concerns


August 14 2019

A controversial plan to spray pesticide over parts of the Mornington Peninsula to fight the spread of the flesh-eating Buruli ulcer has been halted amid concerns about its effect on bees.

The pesticide trial, which was planned for October, was designed to reduce mosquito numbers in the hope that would stop the spread of the mysterious ulcer, which has mainly affected the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas.

But the trial has been paused by the Mornington Shire Council after local residents expressed concerns about the use of synthetic pyrethroid pesticide spray.

In a petition, the founder of Save the Bees Australia, Simon Mulvany, dubbed the proposed spraying an “insect massacre”.

“The stuff they are using will kill every insect,” Mr Mulvany said. “There is also health warnings about using it near waterways because it will also kill aqua creatures including dragonfly larvae and tadpoles.”

Mr Mulvany started the petition opposing the mosquito cull after reading about the proposed spraying in The Good Weekend. The petition has been signed by 16,000 people.

“What danger does this poisoning program pose to pollinators, fauna and public health?” the petition says.

Mornington Peninsula Shire mayor David Gill said the community does not want the spraying “and have made that clear”.

“We are not going to have spraying on the Mornington Peninsula in October – they can come back to us and have another discussion,” he said.

There have been 135 cases of the flesh-eating Buruli ulcer recorded in Victoria this year, slightly down on the 165 cases at the same time last year.

Leading Buruli expert Professor Tim Stinear said research led by Melbourne scientists over the last 15 years indicated mosquitoes and possums were involved in the spread of the disease.

“When we have a disease outbreak we have an obligation to the human population to control that disease,” said Professor Stinear, a professor in microbiology at Melbourne University’s Doherty Institute.

“What we are trying to do is balance the need to control a devastating disease with minimising environmental impacts.”

He said those involved in the study were very sensitive to the environmental impacts and would continue with the consultation process.

“We are in a close partnership with Mornington Shire Council and we are certainly going to listen  to their wishes and advice,” Professor Stinear said.

He said there were alternatives to pesticide spraying, but the effectiveness of other interventions might be varied.

“It is too early to say what the alternatives might look like but they are certainly being investigated. We need to control this disease.”

The council voted to undertake extensive community consultation on the use of spraying and ask for expert advice on alternative approaches that alleviated harm to the ecosystem and biodiversity.

It would not take a position on the spraying trials – which are part of the Beating Buruli in Victoria project – until this was completed.

The council has asked for a report stipulating that fogging, where pesticide is misted from a blower, is not a viable option and that targeted spraying in yards should be a last resort.

It says safer, non-chemical pesticides should be explored.

It also says anyone affected by the mosquito cull program should be required to opt in, rather than opt out.

Cr Gill said there was an outpouring of concern at a public meeting attended by hundreds of people last Saturday.

“To a person, there was nobody supporting spraying,” said Cr Gill, who is a native bee enthusiast.

The Beating Buruli study is being funded by the Australian government, which has provided $3.9 million for Buruli research.

It is a joint initiative between the Department of Health and Human Services, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Austin Health, Agriculture Victoria and Melbourne University’s Doherty Institute.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who attended the public meeting on Saturday, said the Shire maintained full authority over the project and actions undertaken in its municipality.

“My advice to the meeting and the council is that they may want to consider moving to an opt-in program,” Mr Hunt said.

“It was also good to speak to locals about how to better educate physicians and diagnosticians on the ulcer.”