Genetically-modified mosquitoes from the UK have now been released in Florida in an effort to have them breed with Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes to dwindle their population. This is the latest development in the continuing fight against the Zika virus, which has caused a global scare in recent years due to its spread.
Millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, each with a “killer” gene engineered by a British biotech company based in Oxford, are meant to mate with the native mosquitoes to create offspring with shortened lifespans, thus theoretically dwindling the mosquito population to slow down and eventually halt the spread of the Zika virus.
This is not the first time such a method was used as it has now become common practice for controlling insect populations, which is useful for pest management. The same has been done for malaria-carrying anopheles mosquitoes, pink bollworms, diamondback moths, and Mediterranean fruit flies, as well as yellow fever-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
There have more than 400 cases of Zika virus infection in the US since January 2016, and the U.S. Congress is now putting resources into fighting the disease. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus as a public health emergency and posted an advisory for pregnant women to not travel to infected areas.
The Zika virus recently claimed its first American victim in US soil – specifically in Puerto Rico – on April 29. The patient was a Puerto Rican septuagenarian who developed an autoimmune disorder after recovering from symptoms of the Zika virus, which included fever and rash.
“Although Zika virus-associated deaths are rare, the first identified death in Puerto Rico highlights the possibility of severe cases, as well as the need for continued outreach to raise health care providers’ awareness of complications that might lead to severe disease or death,” according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The illness caused by the Zika virus has been found to be fairly similar to other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and Chinkungunya, with symptoms including fever, joint pain, fatigue, and rashes. While the Zika virus was mostly found to be rarely fatal, it was its apparent link to an epidemic of infant microcephaly in Brazil that caused a worldwide alarm last year.
Much is still not known about the Zika virus and its true effects. While research so far has shown it to be a rather mild and short-term illness for the most part, secondary infections and transmissions have been found to have links to deaths and birth defects.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito has been long maligned due to the variety of diseases the species carries and spreads aside from the Zika virus. Studies delving into the genetic modification of that particular mosquito species was driven mostly by the spread of diseases like dengue fever – potentially fatal diseases that claims lives in tropical regions.
Aside from genetic modification, the search for vaccines, and other scientific endeavors aimed to eradicate the Zika virus, prevention measures are also being advocated to prevent the spread of the disease. The most common practice has always been to remove potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes in order to keep them from multiplying uncontrollably, as well as fumigation and pesticides to rid homes of mosquitoes that already reside in them.
In the meantime, if ever the genetically-modified mosquitoes dispersed in Florida yield some positive results, it could lead to a more definite solution to the Zika virus problem.
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