On Tuesday, NPR ran a story on genetically modified mosquitoes. The representative for the company Oxitec immediately admitted that these mosquitoes are not super intelligent and don’t have Transformers-like capabilities. As disappointed as I was, I kept listening.
The company has created genetically modified males who are very sexy to the females but their offspring? Die.
When released in the Grand Caymans during trials, they wiped out 80% of the mosquito population.
Sounds great but what does that really mean for people and nature?
Well, male mosquitoes don’t bite so there is no potential for THE FLY. And mosquitoes carry diseases like malaria and dengue fever. In fact, there has been an outbreak of dengue fever in the Florida Keys the last two years, which is why Florida is considering these mutant mosquitoes.
Malaria is bad news (although not found in Florida):
The CDC estimates that there are 300-500 million cases of malaria each year, and more than 1 million people die. It presents a major disease hazard for travelers to warm climates. (source)
Dengue Fever is mostly annoying:
Begins with a sudden high fever… A flat, red rash may appear over most of the body 2 – 5 days after the fever starts. A second rash, which looks like the measles, appears later in the disease. Infected people may have increased skin sensitivity and are very uncomfortable. (source)
Dengue Hemorrhagic fever is its one potentially deadly complication. (which I couldn’t find any evidence of occurring in Florida):
Early symptoms of dengue hemorrhagic fever are similar to those of dengue fever, but after several days the patient becomes irritable, restless, and sweaty. These symptoms are followed by a shock -like state… With early and aggressive care, most patients recover from dengue hemorrhagic fever. However, half of untreated patients who go into shock do not survive. (source)
Even with this potentially deadly complication, which occurs 10% of the time, it only leads to death 1% of that 10%,. (The math: 1 of a 1000 people who contract dengue fever will die although I would imagine that the statistics are based on areas where dengue fever is more common rather than Florida with only 88 cases in the past 2 years.) Only 0.1% of the Florida Keys population has contracted the disease, and only 20 cases are indigenous to Florida (contracted in Florida and not abroad and happen to show symptoms while in Florida). Back in 2001, there were 40 cases in Hawaii of dengue fever. Also, researchers don’t expect the cases to extend beyond 1 COUNTY in Florida. (source)
So I find it shocking that Florida authorities would be considering such an extreme measure for a two year dengue fever outbreak. I imagine that there are more pressing matters than wiping out the mosquito population over 20 cases of an annoying virus.
I also believe that any large alteration of nature (such as wiping out a species on purpose) should be considered carefully. Mosquitoes are part of our eco-system and while I hate mosquito bites, I also hate ants, most spiders, house flies and the neighbor who leaves dog poop bags next to my trash can. I plan to just walk through these issues. I’m very brave that way.
Mosquitoes are a favorite meal for bats. Bats don’t become vampires sadly, but they do spread plant seeds (through poop!), and in Virginia, they are eaten by owls, hawks, raccoons, skunks and other animals prey on bats.
I love science and its push to find new and better ways to help people. But I feel like this concept, particularly in Florida, speaks to our belief that we shouldn’t experience discomfort, and species, that aren’t cute, aren’t important.
I worry about are ability to understand the big picture and to appreciate the intricacies of nature. We don’t really understand the relationship between bats and plants but many scientists believe it is valuable. I don’t think that we understand the ramifications of species loss.
If they were considering this in a place where mosquitoes were transmitting diseases that killed or maimed a large amount of people? I might consider it. I don’t know how many people would be considered “enough” to destroy a species. I found no reported cases of death in Florida due to mosquitoes. But alligators killed 17 people between 2000-2007 in Florida. How are the Florida authorities rationalizing this?
I would like to see Florida increase funding for local scientists to better understand what caused dengue fever, an annoying virus, to shift into dengue hemorrhagic fever or to support vaccine development.
Or if Oxitec would make genetically-altered mosquitoes who could do dishes and mow my lawn, I might change my mind.