A controversial way to halt the virus in its tracks
Ever since man and mosquito have come into contact with one another, the insect has been a problem. With the various diseases they spread, these little bugs have killed – and continue to kill – millions. They are far and away the deadliest creature on the planet. So, the question remains: Why do we keep putting up with them?
It’s a question that many people are grappling with right now. And it becomes even more pertinent with the influx of Zika. Recently, molecular biologist Nina Fedoroff gave a TED Talk in which she discussed the origins of Zika and what can be done to stop it and other diseases.
What exactly is Zika?
Living in South Florida, it’s pretty much impossible not to have heard of Zika, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there about it. On its own, it’s actually not a very serious disease. Symptoms include a slight fever or a headache and maybe some joint pain or a rash. Many people don’t even realize they have it. However, Zika can lead to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis.
Zika can have the worst effect on unborn children. If a pregnant woman contracts the disease, it’s possible the baby will be born with microcephaly, a condition in which the child is born with a head that’s too small. Currently, there is no cure.
What’s being done to fight Zika-carrying mosquitos?
As Fedoroff points out, one of the main tactics used to battle mosquitos is an insecticide. But there are a couple of downsides to its deployment by mosquito control programs: Some mass-sprayed insecticides aren’t just harmful to mosquitos and the programs can only mitigate mosquito populations, not eliminate them.
Is there a better solution?
Fedoroff – and many other scientists – believe so, and it has to do with genetics. She talks about Oxitec, a company in Britain that genetically modified the male Aedes aegypti. This is the mosquito that spreads not only Zika, but yellow fever, dengue, and West Nile virus. When these lab-altered mosquito mates with a wild female, the eggs don’t fully mature. These mosquitos were released in Piracicaba, Brazil, and after a year, dengue in the area had dropped by over 90 percent.
Why isn’t this used in the U.S.?
The main reason why these mosquito-control techniques aren’t being used in America is that they are genetically modified organisms. GMOs have been in the news a lot lately, and it’s a topic that generates controversy. Due to protests and public backlash, Oxitec has been blocked from conducting trials in the Florida Keys. However, another test conducted under the supervision of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District did recently take place in the Keys. Mosquitos weren’t genetically modified, rather infected with Wolbachia bacteria and released, with the idea that the bacteria will prevent eggs from hatching. The results of that test are still being evaluated.
The bottom line
Anytime the idea of altering genetics comes up, it generates controversy – this science is still very new. But what Fedoroff wants to stress is that the “biological control of harmful insects can be … effective and … environmentally friendly.” And because this has the potential to save millions of lives, it’s something that should be seriously considered.
What you can do now to protect yourself
It will probably be a while before genetically-modified mosquitos are common in the U.S., which means finding alternate methods to stay safe. Bug sprays and citronella candles can only do so much, but there is an easier, more effective way to get rid of mosquitos in your yard: a misting system.
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