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A moment in the sun for the tsetse fly – and the Stanford researcher studying its effect on Africa

tsetse flyThanks to a study published earlier this year, the tsetse fly has garnered attention from The Economist, The Guardian, Humanosphere, and - most recently - from the Department of Medicine's Annual Report.

What makes this flying pest so important? In the American Economic Review paper, Stanford's Marcella Alsan, MD, PhD, showed that by spreading sleeping sickness the tsetse fly may have significantly affected Africa’s economic development.

In precolonial Africa, sleeping sickness killed livestock en masse in areas where the fly was prevalent. Alsan, a Stanford Health Policy core faculty member whose work focuses on the relationship between health and socioeconomic disparities, asserts that where cows and other livestock were not available in large numbers, farmers did not develop progressive agricultural methods. This produced lower crop yields and limited mobility for people and goods.

“Communicable disease has often been explored as a cause of Africa’s underdevelopment,” Alsan says in this Department of Medicine piece. “Although the literature has investigated the role of human pathogens on economic performance, it is largely silent on the impact of veterinary disease.”

Because fewer domesticated animals limited their transportation options and because sleeping sickness among humans thinned population densities, people living in tsetse-heavy areas of Africa were less likely to develop a centralized political system, making economic development more difficult. The lack of centralization continues to affect the continent today.

“The evidence suggests current economic performance is affected by the tsetse through the channel of precolonial political centralization,” Alsan wrote in the American Economic Review piece.

This work may help to determine why many African communities lack the development of wealthier countries. “It’s incredibly important to shine light on issues that are Africa-specific and therefore may not garner as much attention as those economic and medical issues that affect wealthier regions of the world,” Alsan noted.

Nicole Feldman is the communications associate at Stanford Health Policy.
Photo by David Dennis

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