Health officials in Florida are considering a plan to release thousands of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild to combat a rare disease. According to the Associated Press, mosquito control workers are waiting for word from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that would put the plan into action as a means of fighting a resurgence of the tropical disease Dengue fever.
The prospective project would target the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a hardy, commonplace mosquito that carries Dengue, also known as "breakbone fever," a viral disease that causes high fevers, flu-like symptoms and intense joint pain, hence its nickname.
The disease was long believed to have been eradicated in the continental U.S., with no recorded cases in Florida for more than half a century. Scientists believe that climate change may explain why cases suddenly reappeared in the state in 2009 and 2010, with 93 cases appearing in the Florida Keys alone.
Even though no new cases have been reported since November of 2010 in the Keys, health officials are eager to collaborate with the British company Oxitec in a plan to release genetically modified non-biting male Aedes aegypti mosquitos into an area of several blocks of the Keys. The modified mosquitos carry a birth defect that will cause their offspring to die before reaching adulthood.
If the project is successful, the Aedes aegypti will die off without the use of poisons and at a relatively low cost. In theory, the genes will die out, never having entered the native mosquito population.
There is no vaccine for Dengue fever.
Michael Doyle, the director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District since mid-2011 told the AP that his research on Oxitec by way of peer-reviewed journals indicated that the program is safe. "The science of it, I think, looks fine. It's straight from setting up experiments and collecting data," he said.
Oxitec has similar projects started in other locations in the world, including Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Malaysia. Residents of the Keys who are concerned about the possibility of danger from the modified mosquitos say that Florida should wait for the outcome of those studies before attempting to release the modified mosquitos in the U.S..
"Why the rush here?" asked Joel Biddle, a resident who contracted Dengue fever, which is rarely fatal, in 2009. "We already have test cases in the world where we can watch what is happening and make the best studies, because wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find out how it can be fail-safe — which it is not right now. It's an open Pandora's box."
[image of Aedes aegypti via WikiMedia Commons]