Status of insecticide resistance in high-risk malaria provinces in Afghanistan
Ahmad et al. Malar J
Status of insecticide resistance in high-risk malaria provinces in Afghanistan
Mushtaq Ahmad 3
Cyril Buhler 2
Patricia Pignatelli 1
Hilary Ranson 1
Sami Mohammad Nahzat 4
Mohammad Naseem 3
Muhammad Farooq Sabawoon 3
Abdul Majeed Siddiqi 3
Martijn Vink 0
0 HealthNet TPO , Lizzy Ansinghstraat 163, 1072 RG Amsterdam , The Netherlands
1 Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine , Pembroke Place, Liverpool L3 5QA , UK
2 ORDiagnostics , 10 rue Irénée Blanc, 75020 Paris , France
3 HealthNet TPO , Kabul , Afghanistan
4 National Malaria and Leishmaniasis Control Pro- gramme, Ministry of Public Health , Kabul , Afghanistan
Background: Insecticide resistance seriously threatens the efficacy of vector control interventions in malaria endemic countries. In Afghanistan, the status of insecticide resistance is largely unknown while distribution of longlasting insecticidal nets has intensified in recent years. The main objective of this study was thus to measure the level of resistance to four classes of insecticides in provinces with medium to high risk of malaria transmission. Methods: Adult female mosquitoes were reared from larvae successively collected in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Badakhshan, Ghazni and Laghman from August to October 2014. WHO insecticide susceptibility tests were performed with DDT (4 %), malathion (5 %), bendiocarb (0.1 %), permethrin (0.75 %) and deltamethrin (0.05 %). In addition, the presence of kdr mutations was investigated in deltamethrin resistant and susceptible Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes collected in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. Results: Analyses of mortality rates revealed emerging resistance against all four classes of insecticides in the provinces located east and south of the Hindu Kush mountain range. Resistance is observed in both An. stephensi and Anopheles culicifacies, the two dominant malaria vectors in these provinces. Anopheles superpictus in the northern province of Badakhshan shows a different pattern of susceptibility with suspected resistance observed only for deltamethrin and bendiocarb. Genotype analysis of knock down resistance (kdr) mutations at the voltage-gated channel gene from An. stephensi mosquitoes shows the presence of the known resistant alleles L1014S and L1014F. However, a significant fraction of deltamethrin-resistant mosquitoes were homozygous for the 1014L wild type allele indicating that other mechanisms must be considered to account for the observed pyrethroid resistance. Conclusions: This study confirms the importance of monitoring insecticide resistance for the development of an integrated vector management in Afghanistan. The validation of the kdr genotyping PCR assay applied to An. stephensi collected in Afghanistan paves the way for further studies into the mechanisms of insecticide resistance of malaria vectors in this region.
Insecticide resistance; Afghanistan; Anopheles stephensi; Knock down resistance (kdr) mutation; Organochlorides; Pyrethroids; Carbamates; Organophosphates
Malaria is a significant health problem in Afghanistan
with more than eight million people still living in high
transmission areas [
]. Malaria transmission is seasonal
with the vast majority of cases recorded from June to
]. The Hindu Kush mountain range and
the arid climate in the south result in transmission areas
restricted to snow-fed river valleys and irrigated zones
below 2000 m above sea level [
]. Plasmodium vivax
accounts for 95 % and Plasmodium falciparum for 5 %
of the malaria cases. In 2013, 39,263 confirmed malaria
cases were recorded [
] and, in endemic areas, the
prevalence of P. vivax is above 5 % [
Amongst the numerous Anopheles species present in
the country, the principal malaria vectors are Anopheles
superpictus, Anopheles culicifacies, Anopheles hyrcanus,
Anopheles pulcherrimus and Anopheles stephensi [
extensive DDT-based spraying programmes conducted
from 1950s to early 1970s resulted in a near
eradication of An. superpictus, the main malaria vector in the
country. Unfortunately, An. stephensi and to a lesser
extent An. culicifacies had become resistant to DDT in
the south and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan and
have replaced the An. superpictus populations in these
]. The development of new cultivated areas
in the North also led to the selection or re-emergence of
the outdoor resting An. pulcherrimus and An. hyrcanus
populations which represent now the two main malaria
vectors observed in the rice fields of Kunduz province [
] and in the wider region including the southern part
of Tajikistan [
]. Due to its ability to survive at relatively
high altitude, An. superpictus seems to be now mostly
restricted to freshwater breeding sites in valleys of the
Hindu Kush mountain range [
Vector control interventions are cost effective and
essential measures to control malaria [
]. The lack of
an effective malaria vaccine and the presence or
emergence of resistance to existing anti-malarial drugs
further increases reliance on indoor residual spraying (IRS)
and distribution of long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs)
to control malaria vectors. Between 1949 and 1973 IRS
campaigns have been conducted across the country, first
with DDT and then (when this pesticide lost is
effectiveness) with malathion. In the years thereafter, small-scale
spraying campaigns were conducted with insecticides
supplied by the USSR, Iraq and the UK, but after the
Soviet invasion in 1979 IRS campaigns in the country
stopped altogether . Since 2001 IRS has been
implemented occasionally but only on a local scale to control
malaria epidemics. In the beginning of the 1990s
insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) were introduced in Afghan
refugee camps in Pakistan and from 1992 in Afghanistan
itself. The ITNs were treated—and later retreated—with
deltamethrin, permethrin or alpha-cypermethrin. From
2007, ITNs were replaced by LLINs and a universal free
coverage of LLINs was implemented through
house-tohouse distribution campaigns. Between 2007 and 2015,
more than nine million deltamethrin-treated LLINs were
distributed to households in the main malaria-endemic
provinces across the country as defined by a risk
stratification map developed by the WHO and the Ministry of
Public Health (MoPH) [
]. Further LLINs distribution is
still ongoing in the country and is coordinated by a
Vector Borne Disease Task Force at the Ministry of Public
Only four classes of insecticides are currently approved
for IRS: organochlorides, organophosphates, carbamates
and pyrethroids [
]. The situation with LLINs is even
more problematic as pyrethroids are the only insecticide
class approved for safety reasons and efficacy [
repeated use of the same insecticides combined with
agriculture pesticide usage has maintained a selection
pressure amongst mosquito populations leading inevitably to
the development of insecticide resistance in many
African malaria endemic countries [
]. Resistance to several
insecticides have also been reported in the Middle East
region including DDT resistance in Iran [
pyrethroid resistance in An. stephensi in Dubai [
such monitoring is less developed than in the sub-Saharan
or East African region (see the current status of insecticide
resistance worldwide on the IR mapper interactive tool
]). Data on insecticide susceptibility in Afghanistan is
still very limited and further complicated by the number
of endemic Anopheles species present in the country. The
latest and only data available so far come from a
susceptibility study conducted by the National Malaria and
Leishmaniasis Control Programme (NMLCP) of the MoPH in
2010 that showed a reduction in susceptibility to
pyrethroids, carbamates and organochlorines especially in the
eastern province of Nangarhar [
]. Accurate measures
of insecticide resistance in Afghanistan are thus essential
to aid the Vector Borne Disease Task Force with an
evidence base to evaluate current vector management
interventions, raise awareness in case of increased resistance
to specific insecticides and adapt local strategies based on
mosquito population dynamics.
With the growing threat and challenges posed by
insecticide resistance in malaria endemic countries, the WHO
and Roll Back Malaria have developed the global plan for
insecticide resistance management (GPIRM) [
in agreement with the recommendations of the GPIRM,
a study was developed to survey the level of resistance
in a selection of Afghan provinces. A recent malaria risk
stratification at the district level was used to select
districts in five high risk malaria provinces for this study:
the eastern provinces of Laghman, Nangarhar and Kunar
known for the highest rate of P. falciparum malaria
transmission, the southern province of Ghazni and the
northern province of Badakhshan (Fig. 1). As recommended by
the WHO, a separate study was implemented to gather
information on the underlying mechanisms of resistance.
This study focused on target site resistance by assessing
the presence of knock down resistance (kdr) mutations
in the voltage-gated channel gene using an allele specific
PCR approach previously developed for An. stephensi in
Larvae collections were conducted successively in the
eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman, the
northern province of Badakhshan and the southern
province of Ghazni from August to October 2014. In order to
obtain a good representation of insecticide susceptibility
at the provincial level at least three districts described as
medium to high-risk malaria transmission by the NMLCP
were selected within each province [
]. Locations of the
study sites are indicated in Fig. 1 and ecological
characteristics of each collection site are provided in Table 1.
Larval collection and mosquito rearing
In each province, immature stage mosquitoes (larvae
or pupae) were collected from breeding sites located
within a 2 to 3-km radius in ecological habitats where
the probability to find larvae was high (river stream,
rice fields, water puddles or other standing water areas).
Sites with the highest densities were used for sampling to
obtain enough test subjects for the susceptibility assays.
Larvae samples collected in Nangarhar, Laghman and
Kunar were raised to the adult stage in an insectary
located in Jalalabad. To avoid high mortality rate of
larvae during transportation, makeshift insectaries were
established in dedicated rooms at district hospitals in the
provinces of Badakhshan and Ghazni. In all laboratory
settings, temperatures were kept at 25 ± 2 °C and
relative humidity at 75 ± 10 %. Larvae were reared in enamel
trays containing water with yeast powder and powdered
fish food supplements. Following pupation, samples were
placed in a small bowl with water and transferred to
closed cages for their emergence into adults.
Anopheles mosquitoes were identified morphologically
at the adult stage using Glick’s identification keys [
Insecticide susceptibility assays
Insecticide susceptibility tests were carried out using the
WHO bioassay [
]. The following diagnostic
concentrations of insecticides were used: 4 % DDT, 5 % malathion,
0.1 % bendiocarb, 0.75 % permethrin and 0.05 %
deltamethrin. Oil-impregnated papers were used as controls. Test
kits and insecticide control oil-impregnated papers were
purchased from the Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang,
Malaysia). Filter papers integrity was confirmed using a
laboratory-reared An. stephensi strain susceptible to the
four classes of insecticides. Susceptibility tests were
performed using 3–4 days old female mosquitoes. At least
100 test mosquitoes (20–25 mosquitoes per replicates)
and 50 female control mosquitoes (2 replicates) were
exposed for 1 h to each of the insecticide impregnated
papers and were then transferred to recovery tubes with a
10 % glucose cotton-impregnated solution. Mortality was
recorded 24 h post exposure. Average mortality was
calculated for each insecticide and corrected using Abbot’s
] if the observed mortalities in the control
tests were between 5 and 20 %. Tests were discarded if
mortality in the control tube was above 20 %. WHO
criteria were used to assess susceptibility to each insecticide
]. A mortality rate below 90 % was indicative of
resistance while mortality above 98 % indicates susceptibility.
Mortality between 90 and 97 % was suggestive of
resistance in the population. In total, 224 susceptibility assays
including 58 control assays were performed during this
For DDT, deltamethrin and permethrin, knock down
rate was recorded at 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 min
in the presence of the corresponding insecticide. After
60 min mosquitoes were transferred to the recovery tube
and a last count of the number of knocked down
mosquitoes was made at 80 min. A mosquito was considered
knocked down if it was unable to stand or fly in a
Knock down resistance allele genotyping
DNA was extracted from 137 individual mosquitoes
following WHO bioassays against deltamethrin (15 alive
and 50 dead mosquitoes from Nangarhar and 21 alive
and 51 dead mosquitoes from Kunar) using the
Qiagen DNeasy blood and tissue kit. Kdr genotyping in the
Domain II S6 segment of voltage-gated channel gene
was performed by two allele-specific PCRs according to
the method developed by Singh et al. [
]. The first PCR
discriminates the allele 1014F from wild type or 1014S,
and the second PCR discriminates 1014S from wild type
Data and statistical analysis
Cumulative curves of mortality and KDT50 and KDT90
were calculated with a log time-probit model using Qcal
]. 2 × 2 contingency tables were used to test for
association between presence of the kdr allele and survival to
deltamethrin in bioassays.
Larval identification and habitat documentation
With the exception of Kama district in Nangarhar, the
breeding sites visited were mainly uncultivated area
corresponding to river banks, ponds or standing water (see
summary of ecological habitats in Table 1). All samplings
were conducted at altitudes below 2000 m above sea level
(asl) with the exception of Ghazni district where An.
stephensi and An. superpictus larvae were collected at
altitudes up to 2900 m asl.
In total, 8834 larvae were collected in the five
provinces including 2880 larvae belonging to the Culex group
(see Additional file 1). Amongst Anopheles species, An.
stephensi was the dominant species (61.9 %) followed
by An. culicifacies (20.9 %) and An. superpictus (16.3 %).
Other marginal species found during this study were An.
splendidus, An. nigerimus and An. subpictus (all below
1 %). The distribution of Anopheles species in each of
the provinces is presented in Fig. 2. An. stephensi was
isolated in the provinces south of the Hindu Kush
mountain range: in the eastern province of Nangarhar, Kunar
and Laghman and in the southern province of Ghazni, as
previously documented [
]. Larvae collection in
Laghman showed a mixed composition with coexistence of
An. culicifacies along with An. stephensi. An. superpictus
was isolated in Badakhshan consistent with other
observations of its presence in the southern parts of Tajikistan
bordering Afghanistan [
]. Overall the malaria vector
species identified in this study are consistent with
previous bionomic observations performed in Afghanistan
A total of 2049 female mosquitoes, reared from larvae
collected in each province, were exposed to insecticides
belonging to the four WHO approved classes. Average
mortality rates for the dominant species are presented
in Fig. 3. Resistance to deltamethrin was observed for
An. stephensi (in Nangarhar, Kunar and Ghazni) and An.
culicifacies (in Laghman) using a threshold of 90 %
mortality for resistance confirmation as set by WHO criteria
]. Anopheles superpictus in the northern province of
Badakhshan showed also incipient pyrethroid resistance
with deltamethrin. Resistance to permethrin is less
evident as average mortality rates are near or above 90 % for
An. stephensi and An. culicifacies, whereas An.
superpictus in Badakhshan remains susceptible.
DDT resistance was observed for An. stephensi (in
Nangarhar, Kunar and Ghazni) and An. culicifacies in
Laghman. However, in Badakhshan An. superpictus remains
susceptible to DDT. The three dominant mosquito
species analysed in this study remain largely susceptible to
Fig. 2 Distribution of the vector species in the selected provinces
Fig. 3 Percentage mortality (±SD) in the five selected provinces. The dashed lines correspond to the limit for resistance as defined by WHO criteria
]. Dominant species tested were An. stephensi in Kunar, Ghazni and Nangarhar (shown in blue), An. superpictus in Badakhshan (red) and An.
culicifacies in Laghman (green). The number of mosquitoes used for each bioassay is indicated on the right
the carbamate insecticide bendiocarb. Finally,
contrasting susceptibilities among malaria vectors were observed
for malathion as An. superpictus and An. culicifacies were
susceptible whereas resistance was detected for An.
stephensi mosquitoes collected in Ghazni and Kunar.
The difference in DDT susceptibility between An.
superpictus mosquitoes and other malaria vectors was
further confirmed by knock down rate analysis (see Fig. 4;
Additional file 2). Whereas 90 % of An. superpictus are
knocked down after less than 40 min in the presence of
DDT in Badakhshan (KDT90 = 37.5 min, CI 95 % 3.548–
3.702), more than 50 % of An. stephensi or An.
culicifacies mosquitoes seems unaffected by this insecticide after
80 min, with KDT50 ranging from 100 to 230 min.
Differences in knock down rates against pyrethroids
were also observed between An. stephensi collected in
Ghazni and the same species collected in the eastern
provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar despite similar 24 h
mortality rates. For example, knock down rates in the
presence of deltamethrin is two to three times faster is
Ghazni than in Nangarhar or Kunar (KDT50 = 17.5 min,
CI 95 % 2.787–2.931; KDT50 = 43.1 min, CI 95 % 3.660–
3.865 and KDT50 = 37.3 min, 3.534–3.707, respectively).
These variations could suggest different mechanisms of
resistance involved in the emerging susceptibility of An.
stephensi to pyrethroids in these provinces.
128 of the 137 mosquitoes were successfully genotyped
for the kdr alleles indicating that the method developed
by Singh et al. [
] in India can also be performed on An.
stephensi mosquitoes collected in Afghanistan. In both
sites studied, Kunar and Nangarhar, the wild type 1014L
allele was the most prevalent allele followed by 1014S and
1014F kdr mutations (Fig. 5). No kdr homozygotes were
detected, the serine and phenylalanine allele were found
as heterozygotes with the wild type. When data from
both sites are combined there is a significant association
between the presence of either kdr allele and phenotype
(p < 0.05) although the odds ratios are low (2.24). The
finding that only 44 % (15/34) of the bioassay survivors
possessed a kdr mutation suggests that other resistance
mechanisms are also present in these populations.
Gathering bionomic information on endemic malaria
vectors is an essential component for the development
of an effective vector management plan. Previous
entomological studies performed in Afghanistan have
highlighted the diversity of Anopheles species present in the
]. This study confirmed that An. stephensi
and to a lesser extent An. culicifacies are the dominant
species in the provinces located in the east (Nangarhar,
Laghman and Kunar) and south (Ghazni) of the Hindu
Kush mountain range. An. superpictus was the only
species identified in the northern province of Badakhshan.
Anopheles hyrcanus and An. pulcherrimus have
previously been identified in rice fields in the northern
province of Kunduz in 2005–2006 , but were not detected
in the current study. This uneven representation of
Anopheles species in northeastern provinces may reflect
differences in the densities of irrigated and cultivated
areas, in addition to preferences for specific types of
ecological habitat within each province [
It has been well documented that malaria in
Afghanistan is endemic to areas that are below 2000 m asl
although episodes of P. falciparum malaria may occur in
areas above 2400 m asl [
]. The presence of An. stephensi
and An. superpictus at high altitudes (up to 2900 m asl)
in Ghazni is therefore not surprising and highlights the
distribution of the vectors to a variety of
environmental conditions. With the exception of rice fields in
Nangarhar, the three dominant species identified in this study
(An. superpictus, An. culicifacies and An. stephensi) were
collected from freshwater breeding site and ponds. As
larvae collections were performed during 2–3 weeks
successively in each province, the relative representation of
Anopheles species in each of the provinces may well vary
during the malaria transmission season.
Adults reared from the dominant larvae species found
in each of the five provinces (An. stephensi in Nangarhar,
Kunar and Ghazni, An. culicifacies in Laghman and An.
superpictus in Badakhshan) were used as test subjects
to measure the level of insecticide resistance using the
WHO test procedure [
]. Overall, insecticide resistance
was observed (or highly suspected) to at least pyrethroids
and DDT. The situation in Badakhshan is different from
the other provinces as An. superpictus mosquitoes from
that province were susceptible to all insecticides tested
with the exception of deltamethrin for which emerging
resistance is suspected.
It is now evident that pesticide usage from
agriculture activities and increased coverage of LLINs in
vector control can directly select for insecticide resistance
]. Despite a lack of data on precise pesticide usage
in Afghanistan, it is likely that pest control activities have
consequences on mosquito populations and could
potentially lead to cross-resistance with the insecticides used in
malaria vector control activities. Such selection pressure
could be even more exacerbated in Afghanistan where
potential mosquito breeding sites and rice fields are closely
associated and restricted to valleys. A limited number of
irrigation infrastructures and less agricultural areas
compared to other provinces could thus explain the relative
susceptibility observed for An. superpictus mosquitoes
collected in Badakhshan, although it is possible that this
species is more sensitive to the standard doses of insecticide
used in this study. Additive or synergistic effects with
pesticides in provinces with more intensive agriculture and
irrigation could also be determinant in the observed
resistance, as cross-resistance has previously been described
in other countries . Beside the dispersion of resistant
mosquitoes from neighbouring provinces, the observed
resistance in Ghazni could be an example of such
crossresistance as bed nets distribution has been implemented
only recently (HealthNet TPO, personal data).
Massive distribution of deltamethrin-impregnated
LLINs in Afghanistan over the past decade is a likely
contributor to the emerging deltamethrin insecticide
resistance that was observed. The LLINs that were distributed
since 2007 are impregnated with deltamethrin (PermaNet
2.0). In Badakhshan, irrigation is less developed compared
to other Afghan provinces and agriculture is more
oriented towards pastoral activities. The resistance to
pyrethroid (at least deltamethrin) observed for An. superpictus
Badakhshan is thus most likely a direct consequence of the
bed net distribution campaigns as crop production and
irrigation infrastructure is less developed in this province.
Understanding the mechanisms of resistance is essential
to adapt vector control strategies and helps predict the
origin (new emergence versus migration of resitant
populations) and likely impact of resistance [
]. So far analysis of
the underlying mechanisms of resistance has not been done
in Afghanistan. Although a method has been developed
to genotype kdr mutations in An. stephensi mosquitoes in
], DNA sequence variations at the vgc locus may
have reduced the fidelity of this genotyping protocol. The
implemented study aimed initially to test if this method
can be effectively applied using An. stephensi mosquitoes
collected in Afghanistan. PCR amplicons were successfully
obtained at the kdr locus in 93 % of the mosquitoes tested
(128 out of 137) indicating that this methodology can be
used with no additional optimization of the reaction
conditions. Therefore, this is a new tool available for vector and
malaria control programmes in Afghanistan to understand
and follow up acquired resistance against pyrethroids.
In addition, this study provided information on the
relative distribution of kdr mutations relative to the wild
type allele. The pattern of L1014S and L1014F mutations
is similar to observations in India with L1014S being
more prevalent than L1014F. No homozygote kdr
mutations were observed, although a relatively low sample size
(restricted to the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and
Kunar) was used in this study. Finally, as some
deltamethrin-resistant mosquitoes do not express mutated forms
of the vgc gene, other mechanisms of resistance must be
considered to explain this phenotype.
This study showed that insecticide resistance is now
emerging within malaria vectors in Afghanistan and
highlights the importance of establishing an insecticide
resistance management plan [
]. The observation that
the pattern of insecticide susceptibility varies amongst
the different Anopheles species and ecological contexts
advocates for additional bionomic studies associated with
insecticide resistance monitoring in all malaria endemic
provinces. The impact of the current levels of resistance
on the efficacy of LLINs is not known. However, as
theory and practice both indicate that levels of pyrethroid
resistance in malaria vectors will continue to increase,
this must be carefully monitored and complementary
interventions implemented if there is indication that the
protective efficacy of LLINs is diminished by insecticide
resistance in Afghanistan.
Additional file 1: Table S1. Species distribution in each district and
Additional file 2: Table S2. 50 % and 90 % knock down time in minutes
(KDT50 and KDT90 respectively) for DDT, permethrin and deltamethrin.
asl: above sea level; DDT: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane; GPIRM: global
plan for insecticide resistance management; IRS: indoor residual spraying;
kdr: knock down resistance; KDT50: 50 % knock down time; KDT90: 90 % knock
down time; LLIN: long-lasting insecticidal net; MoPH: Ministry of Public Health;
NMLCP: National Malaria and Leishmaniasis Control Programme; PCR:
polymerase chain reaction; WHO: World Health Organization.
MA, CB and MV designed the study and drafted the manuscript. MA led the
larval collection, mosquito rearing and bioassay testing. PP and HR performed
molecular analysis of kdr status. SMN, MN, MF and AMS helped with the study
design and implementation. CB, MV and HR carried out statistical analysis. All
authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors wish to thank Abdul Ali and Noor Halim from NMLCP and
Abdullah Nazari and Abdul Rauf from HealthNet TPO for assistance in the larvae
collection and bioassay testing. This work was supported by a grant from
the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (AFG 809-G09M) to
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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