By Dana Zakshevsky - Staff Writer
Many of us (myself included) welcome the summer each year with open arms, ready to relax and bask in the sun. However, in some places, ‘relaxing’ and ‘spending time outside’ might not go hand-in-hand. With warm weather comes an increase in insects, including mosquitoes. And, as we all know, mosquitoes cause problems.
The Zika virus has been a topic in mainstream media for months, as it has spread to seventy countries and territories around the world. The virus can cause fever and flu-like symptoms to its victims; however, it has also been linked to causing Guillain-Barré syndrome (a disorder in the immune system that can cause temporary paralysis) and the severe birth defect microcephaly. As Zika continues to spread like wildfire, researchers are struggling to find out as much as possible about the virus and the mosquitoes that carry it.
One of the biggest questions is, "How do we fight this?" A vaccine is the best course of action, but they’re still in the early stages of development. What do we do until then? How about fighting fire with fire. This is where genetically modified mosquitoes come into play. Scientists at Oxitec have created genetically modified Aedes aegypt mosquitoes (the more prevalent of the two kinds of mosquito that carry the virus) to help prevent the spread of Zika, dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya, and more. These test insects are all male, as only female mosquitoes bite, live for a week or less, and have been altered so that their offspring die before they reach adulthood. Oxitec started testing this genetically altered mosquito back in April of 2015 and has reason to believe it is the best fight against the spread of mosquito-born diseases.
While all of this sounds great in theory, there are still some questions to consider. How effective can the genetically modified mosquitoes be in taking on the existing population of wild mosquitoes? In a press release from the company, Oxitec claims to have seen major declines – 90% and higher – in the Aedes aegypti populations after releasing the altered mosquitoes in test areas including Brazil and Panama.
There is also concern among some people about what the introduction of genetically modified insects could lead to. There is a huge debate in South Florida where residents will vote in November for or against the use of these mosquitoes. However, many experts in the field claim there is no potential harm to humans, animals, or the environment with these insects and the Oxitec mosquitoes are even approved by the EPA, CDC, and the FDA.
While winter months bring cold weather in Northern regions, killing off most of the mosquitoes, areas that remain warm year-round have to worry about how quickly Zika will continue to spread. Countries like Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and many more will have no relief from the insects. On top of the health risks Zika is bringing, how soon until it will have an effect on their economies? How will places that heavily rely on tourism, like the Caribbean, feel the effects of travel advisories? The only way to fight Zika is to fight the mosquito, and if we want to see an end to this epidemic, we’ve got to start fighting soon.
How can you protect yourself against Zika?
- ·Avoid places that are confirmed to have Zika spread by mosquitoes
- If this isn’t possible, wear insect repellent with deet or other EPA approved ingredients
- Find out more at cdc.gov