Scientists in Germany are working to sterilize large numbers of male mosquitoes through genetic engineering and radiation exposure to halt the spread of the Zika virus.
“Since we use radioactive radiation to sterilize the males before their release, we are convinced that they will not multiply,” Dr. Marc F. Schetelig, a professor at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology in Germany, wrote in a press statement Monday.
“The decisive factor in terms of acceptance is the level of threat posed by the pests,” Schetelig said. “If we had the same problems with dengue fever and Zika virus in Germany as they have in Brazil, we would also be searching for and evaluating different solutions. And the sterile insect technique with transgenic mosquitoes would definitely be part of the discussion.”
Schetelig believes large-scale sterilizations could immediately be implemented in countries that allow the release of genetically-modified organisms, but it would take roughly a year to raise enough sterile mosquitoes to be effective. Schetelig’s technique has gone through three years of research and testing, and could be deployed as soon as next summer.
Female mosquitoes generally don’t mate more than once, so releasing a large number of sterile males will cause a majority of females to mate with them and produce no offspring. This could sharply reduce the number of mosquitoes spreading dangerous viruses, including Zika, in a few generations. Only female mosquitoes drink blood from humans, so Schetelig believes releasing large numbers of sterilized male insects into the wild has little adverse impact.
A similar sterilization technique has successfully been used to eradicate the screw-worm fly in parts areas of North America and has also been able to control species of fruit flies.
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika virus are also known to transmit dengue fever, Chikungunya fever and Rift Valley fever. More deaths are associated with mosquitoes than any other animal on the planet.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Florida health officials confirmed the first domestically spread cases of Zika in Florida Friday. One woman and three men infected with the virus all appear to have acquired it from a single small neighborhood in Miami, but health authorities are not advising people to avoid the neighborhood.
Florida health officials said the four patients appear to have been infected in early July, but no additional cases have occurred in the area after mosquito control efforts were intensified.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stopped accepting blood donations from the Miami-area in late July until they are screened for the virus.
There are currently 1,661 cases of Zika virus confirmed in the continental U.S., as well as another 4,729 in American territories, according to the CDC. These cases include 15 believed to be the result of sexual transmission, one that was the result of laboratory exposure, and the four new local cases. The vast majority of the cases were from people who traveled to a Zika-prone country, such as Brazil.
Zika virus infections in pregnant women are directly linked to fetal deaths and devastating birth defects such as microcephaly, when a baby is born with an abnormally small head, according to the CDC. Laboratory studies also confirmed the presence of Zika virus in the blood, tissue, brains and amniotic fluid of fetuses and babies diagnosed with microcephaly.
There have now been 12 confirmed cases of babies born with Zika-related microcephaly in America, and more than 400 pregnant woman in the continental U.S. have evidence of Zika infection. Some babies with no immediate signs of problems also have been born in the U.S. to Zika-infected mothers.
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