If you’re going to Brazil for the World Cup, don’t forget your insect repellent, and maybe one of these. The country has the highest incidence of dengue fever in the world, with 1.4 million cases reported last year. The disease infects at least 50 million people every year worldwide and kills over a million—the numbers have been rising in recent decades. Severe dengue was first spotted in Southeast Asia in the 1950s; it has now spread throughout Asia and Latin America. Recently it has spread to Europe. There is no cure and no vaccine.
The disease is carried by mosquitoes, mostly the Aedes aegypti. Found in urban areas, Ae. aegypti has proven a particularly difficult mosquito species to control—it has developed a resistance to common insecticides and, because it bites during the day, bed nets are no protection against it. But now Brazilian health officials are running a pilot program using genetically modified mosquitoes to breed the population to death. The mosquitoes are the invention of British biotech company Oxitec, and they’ve had a gene inserted into them that kills them. In the lab, the mosquitoes can be fed a sort of antidote: a supplement that keeps them alive until it’s time to release them. Once they’re released, the clock starts ticking.
Oxitec’s mosquito-suppression solution consists of releasing the modified male mosquitoes into the wild—male mosquitoes don’t bite; it’s the females who do. The Oxitec males mate with female mosquitoes and create progeny that also have the lethal gene. Without the supplement, those progeny die. “By applying the Oxitec Control Programme to an area,” the company’s website says, “the mosquito population in that area can be dramatically reduced or eliminated.”
According to a Public Radio International report, the pilot program is proving enormously popular in the region of northeastern Brazil where it is being run. The trucks driving around releasing the deadbeat mosquito males are emblazoned with “pictures of huge mosquitoes and the word ‘transgenic.’ Health officials hold frequent public meetings and are broadcasting a radio jingle explaining the project.” The biggest factor, however, seems to be that people are desperate for any solution that will help reduce the disease.