How Flies Threaten Human Health In Indigenous Australian Communities


Most Australians think that flies are a nuisance, but you can usually deal with the occasional unwanted buzzing visitor with a swat or an open window. For some Australian communities, flies are a much more serious problem, and some indigenous people face health problems because of these unpleasant creatures. Learn more about the effects flies can have on human health and find out what indigenous communities need to do to protect themselves.

The life cycle of flies in Australia

Australia is a good home for several types of flies. Common species include the house fly, the slightly larger bush fly and the biggest of them all – the blow fly. None of these species will generally attack humans, although the black fly and the stable fly will give domestic animals an uncomfortable bite. Nonetheless, almost everybody across Australia will come across flies at one time or another.

Adult flies like to lay eggs in organic material like food scraps, faeces and animal carcasses. Within just a few hours, the fly's eggs will turn into maggots, which will then quickly grow. After a few days, the maggots burrow down into the soil and turn into pupae, after which adult flies will then hatch within four or five days after that. Flies can travel relatively long distances, but when you see a lot of these insects, you can normally expect to find a thriving breeding ground close by.

How flies spread disease

In many ways, flies have a vital role to play in the natural world, as they break down rotting organic matter. Unfortunately, these insects can also spread disease. The material flies like to feed on is normally full of bacteria, so when the insects land on their food, their legs and hairy bodies often pick up germs. Flies also leave liquid from their stomachs on the food they are eating. This fluid is full of germs.

When the flies then land on objects (like cups and plates) or human beings, they can spread these bacteria. Flies also spread infections when they land on open cuts or sores on your body.

Bush flies and trachoma

In Australia, flies spread a disease called trachoma. Trachoma is an unpleasant eye infection, which, if left untreated, can eventually lead to permanent blindness. Improvements in living conditions in many parts of the world have eradicated trachoma, but Australia is the only western nation where trachoma remains a problem.

Bush flies are particularly problematic. These insects like the salty moisture that they find in people's eyes, so the insects try to land on the eye to feed. A single fly will often pass from person to person, which can significantly increase the risk of trachoma infection. The living conditions in some indigenous communities allow bush flies to thrive, further increasing the risk of trachoma.

A 2004 review of trachoma in Australia found that the disease was endemic in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territories, almost exclusively in indigenous communities. Infection rates vary from one place to another, but in some communities, as many as 38 percent of children under the age of 10 suffer from the disease.

Controlling flies

The most effective way to prevent the spread of trachoma is to stop flies breeding. Indigenous communities need to observe high standards of hygiene to stop fly populations growing. Steps for these communities to take include:

  • Making sure that rubbish bins have tight-fitting lids
  • Fly-proofing toilet vent pipes
  • Keeping septic tanks sealed and repairing damaged leach drains
  • Taking waste, faeces and animal remains to the rubbish tip as promptly as possible

The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection regularly visits communities to look for any problems that can encourage flies to breed. Education programs are also underway.

The Department of Agriculture in Western Australia has tried to increase dung beetle populations to try to control bush flies. Dung beetles allow cow pads and other waste to decompose more quickly, cutting down on the food supply that bush flies need. This approach can also help stop other pests using waste as a breeding ground, including intestinal worms.

Pest control methods

While prevention is the best approach, indigenous communities can also use insecticides, particularly as part of a wider programme of measures. Fly strips in attics and unoccupied rooms can catch and kill flies, while contact pesticides can also help get rid of flies in other areas. Longer-lasting residual pesticides can help on outdoor surfaces like barns and houses, as well as around dumpsters or bins.

For some people, flies are more than just a nuisance, and indigenous communities must take precautions to protect human health. It's relatively easy to prevent flies from breeding, but pest control treatments can also help manage the problem.


6 February 2015

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