Could Modified Mosquitoes Stop Zika Virus?

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As health officials are warning people to take precautions agains the spread of the Zika virus, new high-tech mosquitoes are being looked to as a possible solution.

The idea for the modified mosquitoes came after concerns rocketed last year after the discovery that Brazilian babies with unusually small skulls and brains were born to mothers who contracted the virus while pregnant. Brazil’s Zika woes continue as athletes, fans, journalists and others from around the globe prepare to converge on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Oxitec, a British biotechnology company, is testing its genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Key Haven, Florida.

Oxitec’s male mosquitoes mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, producing offspring that “have a very high probability of dying before they reach adulthood,” according to the company, whose experiments “have resulted in reduction of the wild population by more than 90 percent,” says Oxitec spokesman Matthew Warren. “Existing methods to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as insecticides, are only 30 to 50 percent effective, at best.”

More than 150 million Oxitec mosquitos have been released, Warren says, with no reported adverse effects. Oxitec’s solution, however, only targets one mosquito species. Also, if this method persists, pesticides no longer could be used against the insects, since they would kill both the dangerous female mosquitoes and the modified males.

Oxitec’s mosquitos are one possible approach to a larger program, says FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman. “However, it is too early to say with any certainty whether such an approach would be successful.”

Zika’s potential to spring from so-called mosquito “nurseries” in the Southern states could hammer all of us as summer heats up, but Atlanta in particular. According to Orkin, the ATL has the nation’s worst mosquito problem. The bugs only need standing water to spawn.

“The mosquitoes that spread Zika virus will bite four or five people before they are satisfied,” says Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for Georgia’s health department. She said people should use insect repellent, eliminate standing water around their homes and stay indoors during dawn and dusk, when mosquitos are most active.

The CDC reported  between January 1, 2015 and May 18, all 544 of the U.S. Zika cases are travel-associated, meaning the virus was originally contracted abroad. To date, 157 pregnant women in the U.S. have reported symptoms.

New York logged 114 travel-related cases, the highest number in America. Florida was second with 109, and California’s 44 cases put it in third. Texas was fourth, with 35 reported infections.

Among 836 Zika cases in U.S. territories, 832 were contracted locally. These include 803 infected people in Puerto Rico, 15 in the Virgin Islands and 14 in American Samoa.

Scientists believe Zika spreads when a female mosquito feeds off of an infected person and later bites a new victim. Harmless male mosquitoes feed on flower nectar. The Aedes aegypti, which lives in the Deep South, is one of several mosquitoes that scientists believe spread the virus. Zika also can be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner. Symptoms, while rare, can last for a week and range from a mild fever to muscle and joint pain.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, is one of several areas battling potential local Zika infections. Specialists there are working with Georgia’s Department of Public Health and the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor outbreaks and educate the community.

An $85-million fund is available to states, cities and territories at risk of Zika outbreaks, the CDC announced this past May. The money is only a bandage for the cash needed to properly finance Zika prevention, says Dr. Stephen C. Redd, a director at the agency. More money from Congress is needed, he adds.

That said, a still-undiscovered Zika vaccine and improved sanitation would be more effective solutions, said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.

“People like magic,” says Hanson. “We want easy answers and we like technology. I’m a big fan of technology, but it needs to be assessed for it what it can do.”