Update: Shortly after this article was published the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency due to the Zika virus and illnesses associated with the Zika virus.
Women in several Caribbean and South American nations are being urged to not get pregnant. It’s an unprecedented prescription to the Zika virus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) warns could infect four million people by the end of the year.
Zika, which can cause brain damage in infants, has gripped South America in recent months, and it’s starting to scare the rest of the world. The WHO holds an emergency meeting today to create a plan of action after 22 countries have found mosquitoes transmitting the disease.
Winter temperatures in the U.S. are inhospitable to mosquitoes but later this year a spread here may be likely, especially after 200,000 Americans head to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics. What can Rio and other cities do to stop the spread?
Available methods, such as larvae-eating fish, fumigation, and incesticide, have reduced mosquito populations by half. British biotech company Oxitec advocates genetically modified mosquitoes. Last year it conducted trials in Piracicaba, Brazil, and found a more-than-80-percent reduction in larvae. It plans to extend trials in Brazil.
Similar to trials in Brazil, a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys awaits federal approval. When dengue fever broke out in Florida a few years ago, 150,000 residents signed a petition to keep the the plan out of the Keys. Critics are concerned with unintended consequences when a genetically modified organism is introduced to the environment.
An increase in diseases like Zika is more likely in a warmer, more-flood-prone world impacted by climate change. So is the use of genetically modified organisms.
Despite little evidence against using Oxitec mosquitoes, the company’s plans have been met with suspicion. Whether to stop one of the biggest killers in history, ensure fewer kids are born without birth defects, or give the world glowing seeds, organizations have to better communicate the benefits as well as the risks and challenges of biotech. There’s a lot at stake.
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Photo Credit: Agência Brasília