Genetically Modified Mosquitos Could Zap Zika

To fight this fast-spreading illness, scientists try a cutting-edge option

by Dorene Weinstein | Updated 01 Feb 2016 at 8:11 AM

The concern continues to build over the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. For weeks now, we have been hearing about the havoc the disease is wreaking in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically on the development of fetuses in pregnant women.

Could one of its next targets truly be North America?

World Health Organization officials are taking every precaution, and given the potential consequence, you might want to as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports there are two recorded cases in which the highly dangerous Zika virus may have been transmitted through sexual intercourse. In addition, the WHO now states that between 3 million and 4 million people may have been infected this year; they simply don’t know.

The Zika virus, carried by the female Aedes mosquito, is relatively harmless to the general population. Only mild symptoms, including a fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, are reported in the general population.

But the Zika virus is perilous to fetuses and can cause a condition known as microcephaly, in which the infant is born with an abnormally small head and inadequate brain development results in mental impairment.

There is no cure or vaccine for the illness. Even a potential vaccine will be years away.

To help stem the tide of the disease, researchers are pinning their hopes on genetically modified mosquitoes. Not only could they potentially help stop the spread of the Zika virus, they might also take a bite out of other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever, Dr. Amesh Adalja told LifeZette. 

Adalja is a senior associate professor and clinical assistant professor at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"GMO mosquitoes are an important technology to be used in the fight against disease spread by Aedes mosquitoes," he said.

Why? Because while the female mosquito is the one that bites, researchers have developed a strain of modified male insects that produces predominately male offspring that die before reaching adulthood and are therefore unable to reproduce.

U.S. authorities are worried because the Aedes mosquito that carries the virus is prevalent along the southern part of the country. More than two dozen travelers have returned home carrying the virus. 

Oxitec, a company based in Great Britain, has been a pioneer in the field of genetically modified mosquitoes.

Said Adalja, "Sterile male mosquitoes have been developed and released in various locales in the Cayman Islands, Brazil and Panama in years past as part of demonstration projects."

Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person who already has the virus. Then they spread the virus to others, according to the CDC.

"The virus can be spread to Aedes mosquitoes so long as it remains in the bloodstream, which is usually three to seven days from the onset of symptoms," Adalja told LifeZette.

It’s important to note that if a woman becomes infected before she gets pregnant, she will be immune to the disease, Adalja said.

Researchers are also now investigating if there is a link between the Zika virus and the development of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder where a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and occasionally paralysis.

Controlling mosquitoes is a major hurdle to corralling the disease.

"Extensive mosquito control operations are underway, and in certain instances the military is involved" in South America, Adalja said.

"The Olympics (in Rio de Janeiro in August) will pose a major challenge," he added. "Travelers from all over the world will be present and then return to their home nations where, if the requisite mosquitoes are present, could seed local mosquito populations."

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