Idea to use genetically modified mosquitoes to potentially lower spread of disease opposed


BALTIMORE (WBFF) - A new Johns Hopkins University study found that surveyed residents say they're worried about a proposal to use genetically modified mosquitoes to help curb the insect population in the Florida Keys. Officials believe the plan to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes could potentially lower the threat of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses, but citizens are concerned about the control method, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found.

The small survey suggests that people's attitudes about this new method may be influenced that pre-existing ideas about the risks of contracting diseases including dengue, chikungunya and Zika from the insects. The findings, published in PLOS Currents Outbreaks, concluded that those who don't feel they're at risk for contracting mosquito-borne diseases or aren't bothered by the bugs, expressed greater concern.

The novel mosquito control method, which has been tried in Brazil and Panama, would use male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are bred to mate with wild females and produce offspring. The offspring have a defective gene that kills them, which would reduce the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

The FDA is considering testing the method in Key Haven in the Florida Keys. A British company, Oxitec, has previously tried to get approval to test their genetically modified mosquitoes in the Keys, but some residents have tried to halt the field trial.

According to a release from Hopkins, "Aedes aegypti carry all three diseases, though no local mosquito-borne cases of Zika virus have been reported in the United States. Zika has been linked to brain-related birth defects in babies born to pregnant mothers who contract the virus.

"The survey was conducted in the second half of 2015, after locally transmitted dengue and chikungunya cases had been discovered in Florida, but before the Zika epidemic in South and Central America became big news. There is concern that Zika could spread north into the continental U.S. The band from southern Florida, including the Keys, to southern Texas, as well as Hawaii, are believed to be part of the region of the U.S. most at risk."

"With the start of mosquito season here and all of the media coverage of Zika, public health officials are going to be faced with important decisions about mosquitoes and how to best protect citizens," says Meghan McGinty, MPH, MBA, a recent PhD recipient from the Bloomberg School and one of the researchers. "People will have objections and it is critical for them to be heard. Our research provides a starting point to understand how the community feels and to begin a dialogue about how to address mosquito-borne diseases."

To conduct the study, the researchers mailed a survey in July 2015 to all 456 households in the Key Haven community outside Key West; they received 89 responses, evenly split on whether mosquitoes are considered a nuisance. However, two-thirds agreed there was a need to reduce the mosquito population. Women were more opposed to novel control method than men.

According to Hopkins, "Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they either 'oppose' or 'strongly oppose' the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the risk of disease. The most common objection was a concern over disturbing the local ecosystem by eliminating mosquitoes from the food chain. Respondents were also concerned that using genetically modified mosquitoes could lead to an increase in the use of other genetically modified products."

Researcher Crystal Boddie says, "the survey provides a baseline of information about residents' attitudes and concerns and can help health officials better educate the public about the risks and benefits of these genetically modified mosquitoes. Then we need to have an honest conversation about where this control method does - or does not - fit in."

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