As you’ve probably heard by now, Zika fever (also known as Zika virus disease and simply Zika) is an infectious disease caused by the Zika virus. Many people will not present symptoms, but some will develop a rash, fever, bone and joint pain, and severe headaches upon exposure. Infection during pregnancy is particularly dangerous because the Zika Virus has been linked to microcephaly and other brain damages in babies. The virus is passed through the blood, via mosquito bites as well as sexual contact.
There are more than 45 different species of mosquitoes living in the humid Florida Keys area and with recent transmissions of the virus in the US, the pressure is on to contain the spread of Zika immediately. The company Oxitec has been genetically modifying mosquitoes in a lab for many years now. These mutant mosquitos contain a protein that kills their young before they can emerge from larvae as adults and transmit Zika or other diseases. When wild female mosquitoes meet with the sterile males, the population dies off rapidly.
The idea for genetically modified mosquitoes came in 2009 as a means to counteract Dengue fever. The Food and Drug Association chose to do a trial in a suburb of Key West because this area is contained and results could be easily monitored. Oxitex has already released millions of these modified mosquitoes in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands. The results in these places have been positive and they have reduced some local mosquito populations by more than 90%.
But not everyone is thrilled about this trial. Community members are nervous about what genetically modified mosquitoes will mean for the ecosystem. Though there is no known evidence of any risk to being stung by a genetically modified mosquito, the idea of coexisting with these creatures is understandably upsetting for some people. This plan has caused a rift between mosquito researchers and many Key West residents. Besides that, since Zika is also sexually transmitted, there is no guarantee that reducing the mosquito population will be able to undo the damage now that Zika is on US soil.
What do you think about genetically modified mosquitos? Are the benefits worth the risk?