Genetically modified mosquitoes come to the US

Keeping Perspective

Ashley Yarus

When I consider the struggles I may face in my lifetime, dengue fever isn’t at the top of my list. However, parts of Southern Florida have suffered recent outbreaks of the crippling illness and authorities are now fumbling for a quick fix for their ever-growing mosquito population. Stuck between chemicals and a genetically-modified species which has only undergone little testing, residents of the sunshine state are caught in the midst of a debate that is leaving officials, activists and scientists confused.

Dengue fever is not fatal, but causes severe flu-like symptoms and can be physically devastating if reinfection occurs. There have been reports of the disease in Florida, Hawaii and Texas since 2001. Additionally, Key West, Florida had an outbreak with 93 confirmed patients in 2010, marking the establishment of the disease in the U.S. With climate change as an undetermined source of environmental changes, scientists have proposed that the dengue fever may now be a growing threat for the country.

With Florida facing an outbreak of 22 cases of dengue fever this past summer, officials in Key West have been getting serious about reducing their mosquito population. So, when Michael Doyle, director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, proposed the introduction of genetically modified mosquitoes, Floridians were forced to consider the seemingly preposterous alternative.

Oxitec, a privately owned-for-profit company, developed a genetically modified species of mosquito where the male insects pass down a gene to their offspring that kills these offspring. The company first released their GM mosquito in the Cayman Islands in 2009, in an unsanctioned, unapproved test which caused worldwide outrage from environmental groups. Oxitec released 3.3 million modified mosquitos in a 2009 test and found their method was 80 percent effective; however, this success is difficult to accept in light of the gross negligence on the company’s part.

The validity of their research as well as a lack of adequate testing on the GM mosquitoes and their possible effects of local environments are being called into question as Oxitec begins to work with accredited academics and scientists and officials push for quick government approval on the new insect.

As Warsaw hosts the 2013 climate change summit and critics expect the same obstinate antics to hold up any progressive action, the Philippines continue to take toll of its disastrous losses and we scramble to fix a problem which we thought was fixed. Mosquitoes in southern Florida hardly seems surprising, but if you think of this change in the grand scheme of the growing evidence of climate change, the effect is staggering. In the U.S. we grapple with the complications of healthcare and work towards creating a healthier, more prosperous country, but what if the problem with healthcare doesn’t deal with the problems that may lie in our future? If the world is changing in ways we can barely predict and understand, are we equipped to deal with these changes? Are we working hard enough to mitigate our environmental impact to prevent such changes?

Ashley Yarus is a second-year student studying chemical engineering.