MARATHON, Fla. – According to the World Health Organization, more than 50% of the world’s population is under the threat of mosquito borne diseases.
In South Florida, the Keys are a hot spot for infection and now the first place in the United States for a novel approach to eradicating these deadly insects.
A mosquito control effort in the works for over a decade is now off the ground.
The Oxitec Project uses genetically modified Aedes Aegypti male mosquitos to mate with females of the Aedes Aegypti species which carry some of the deadliest diseases
“Ades Aegypti themselves are responsible for transmitting Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Chikungunya, Zika virus, said Andrea Leal, entomologist and executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
Only the female mosquitos bite so the Oxitec Project targets the female population of the species.
“So with this project, we’re releasing males only and they’ve been modified with a female lethal gene which means as they go out and they mate with our wild females, all those female offspring will die,” Leal said.
While some Florida Keys residents fear the genetically altered insects will negatively impact the environment, regulatory agencies, including the EPA, have carefully vetted the project.
“We are developing biological solutions to control pests that spread disease, damage crops and harm livestock,” said Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs with Oxitec.
Entomologists say novel approaches like this are a necessity in the face of insecticide resistance.
“These techniques have been in development for more than a decade and the first releases of genetically modified mosquitos were conducted more than a decade ago and every single time they’ve seen that the target population has been eliminated,” said Eric Caragata, associate professor of medical entomology for the University of Florida Food and Agricultural Services.
Caragata said that increasing temperatures and rainfall around the globe will only increase the number of invasive and deadly mosquitos.
“So it’s important to nip them in the bud before they become major threats,” he said.
The first Oxitec Mosquito Control Project in the Florida Keys was launched this April.
A second phase gets underway in the middle of the summer.
Similar projects have been done across the globe since 2006, targeting both invasive mosquitos and other pests that harm livestock and crops.