Can Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Save the World Cup?

RealClear Staff


Mosquitoes are the worst. Except when they destroy each other.

The upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil has a lot of problems. Stadiums might not be done in time. All sorts of poor people are being forced from their homes to make room for/hide them from tourists. Inflation is spiraling ever so slightly out of control. Now, on top of all that, Brazilian scientists are warning that the month long World Cup might coincide with a full on Dengue fever epidemic.

Can’t Brazil catch a break? Well they just might be catching one now thanks to some British scientists and some genetically modified mosquitoes.

First things first, though.

What is Dengue Fever?

Fun fact: the skin rashes that result from Dengue Fever look a lot like the kind you get from the Measles. 

Like Malaria, Dengue Fever is a mosquito-borne illness. Particularly, it travels almost exclusively on Aedes aegypti a mosquito native to Africa (as you might have guessed from the aegypti  in its name) but now buzzes about in tropical and sub- tropical areas all over the world. What Dengue fever does to you is cause a fever, skin rashes, and excruciating pain in your joints. So much pain, in fact, that the disease is nicknamed “breakbone fever” because it makes you feel like your bones are breaking. It can also occasionally kill you via internal bleeding or dropping your blood pressure.  But that’s pretty rare.

Dengue Fever, however, is not rare. Worldwide, estimates put the number of people infected with Dengue in the 10s if not 100s of millions. In Brazil alone, last year, 1.4 million people were infected and this year the infections are expected to be worse and strike three of the cities (Natal, Salvador, and Fortaleza) where the World Cup will take place.

Beautiful Salvador. Brazil's third largest city, Salvador is famous for being built on a cliff so that the way you get from the "upper city" to the "lower city" isn't by car or train but by elevator. 

How do you keep Dengue Fever from ruining everything?

There’s no vaccine for Dengue Fever.  The only way to really deal with the disease is to attack the way the disease spreads—mosquitoes. Traditionally, that’s meant either getting dousing the mosquitoes with pesticides or getting rid of the standing water where the pesky little creatures breed. 

Americans fighting Dengue Fever in the 1920s.

Brazil, however, can’t really do either of these things. You can’t very well go around dousing your World Cup tourists with DDT and, considering that Brazil is a country of constant rainstorms, vast marshes, and, you know, the Amazon River, getting rid of the water is impossible.  So instead, they’ve turned to a British company called Oxitec.

This is where the genetically engineered mosquitoes come in.

What Oxitec has done is figure out a way to genetically engineer male Aedes aegypti to be effectively sterile. You release millions and millions of these genetically engineered male mosquitoes into the environment, they breed with millions and millions of the local, non-sterile female mosquitoes, and then when the females go to give birth, all the offspring die.

Will this really work?

It may just.  Back in 2009 Oxitec carried out an experiment on the Cayman Islands where they released 3.3 million sterilized mosquitoes which, in turn, was able to cut the mosquito population in the targeted areas by 80%. That’s pretty impressive. Doing the same in Brazil, which is somewhere around 32,000 times larger than the Cayman Islands, is going to be more challenging. Right now they’re planning on launching the mosquitoes from the town of Jacobina (which is near Salvador, the largest of the at-risk cities) and then studying their effects over the next 2 years.  

Are there any, you know, environmental or health concerns?

You bet! Not like clear cut concerns, like the mosquitoes have been shown to cause cancer in labrats, but the genetically modified mosquitoes haven’t really be tested at all. Oxitec claims that they’re perfectly safe but there are no public health studies to back that up. Nor are there any studies on what a massive drop in the population of mosquitoes might do to the local ecosystem. 

The Brazilian Tablelands (which make up much of inland northeastern Brazil) probably aren't at risk of being destroyed by Oxitec, but they are gorgeous. So look at them.

This has environmentalists and public health advocates in Brazil worried.  They feel the Brazilian government is rushing into this experimental program because of the World Cup without adequate testing or planning. Sure Dengue Fever is a serious problem, and mosquitoes are a considerable annoyance, but if you make a mistake screwing with nature on that dramatic of a scale, who knows that the repercussions might be?



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