Kicked back in a chair is Joel Biddle, a mellow, slow-talking, Bermuda-born man who operates at a cosmic tempo that matches the pace of life near the southernmost point of the continental United States. His thick, bushy white hair, lazily parted to the side, flops around as he gestures with his meaty hands. Biddle's smooth skin and striped pants belie his 68 years.

Three years ago, Biddle sat on the edge of his bed in tremendous pain, staring at his feet. His bones ached. His head had the woozy, second-behind sensation that accompanies a fever. "I was completely out of my mind," he recalls. "I had been sick for two weeks and thought I finally had the strength to go to the clinic. I put a sock on my foot, which was hard to do, and just sat there for three hours. Then I just went back to bed."

An Aedes aegypti mosquito had pierced Biddle's skin and infected him with the virus that causes dengue fever, an ailment that's earned the ominous nickname of "break bone fever." Each year, upward of 100 million people are infected around the world, and about 25,000 — mostly in Latin American and Asian countries — die from the most severe form. The World Health Organization calls dengue a "fast emerging pandemic prone viral disease" whose rates have "increased 30-fold over the last 50 years." There's no approved vaccine and no treatment. Thankfully, though, dengue is exceedingly rare in the U.S.

Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, stands next to one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.
Chris Sweeney
Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, stands next to one of the four helicopters used to wage aerial assaults on mosquitoes.

"It's debilitating," Biddle concedes. "It's a tough disease, and I can see why [public health officials] are afraid of it."

No one at the table underestimates the severity of dengue or the potential threat it poses to tourism — an industry they all rely on directly or indirectly. And the more mosquitoes and the more tourists, the bigger the threat.

There are, according to some estimates, 40,000 mosquitoes for every person in the United States. In most of the country, mosquito season lasts four months. In South Florida, it's ten months, sometimes 12, depending upon rainfall. Because most Florida counties have had mosquito control programs in place since the 1950s or '60s, modern-day Floridians take their relatively mosquito-free lifestyles for granted. It can be tough to appreciate the extent of mayhem once stirred by "our species most deleterious pest," as environmental historian Gordon Patterson puts it in his book The Mosquito Wars: A History of Mosquito Control in Florida.

In the late 19th Century, when Florida was referred to as "the Devil's property," swarms were so dense in some areas that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes. Union soldiers struggled with the pests during the Civil War, bundling up in overcoats despite the sweltering heat to stave off bites. In August 1864, Acting Master Mate Van Ness of the USS Chambers ­­— a Union ship patrolling the coast of what's now Brevard County — committed suicide by jumping overboard to escape being eaten alive. A "mystery disease" broke out among the remaining crew and killed five. Patterson quips, "Confederate sympathizing mosquitoes were victorious."

Livestock also suffered. In September 1932, in Cape Sable, near the southern tip of the state, 80 cows, 67 hogs, 20 chickens, three horses, two dogs, and one mule were killed in a single night by a blitz of mosquitoes. As noted by Patterson, the animals died either from sheer blood loss, nervous exhaustion, or a toxin. Though mosquito attacks can be excruciating and craze-inducing, the diseases they spread have always been more dangerous. Over the course of mankind's history, mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and yellow fever, have combined to kill billions of people.

Dengue, though less lethal than malaria and yellow fever, has soared in the Caribbean in recent years. In 2011, the CDC issued a travel advisory for the Bahamas after 1,000 suspected cases were recorded in a one-month span. In Puerto Rico, more than 21,000 cases — representing a financial burden of $40 million — were reported in 2010, the most in the history of the island. But the last major outbreak of dengue in Florida occurred back in 1934, when nearly 1,500 of the 2,000 cases were concentrated in Broward and Miami-Dade. Noxious chemicals such as DDT that were brewed in the "Better Living Through Chemistry" era played a vital role in suppressing the disease.

Only a few cases emerged in Florida over the following decades, mostly in people who had picked up the virus while abroad. But in 2009, a woman from New York who had traveled to Key West was diagnosed with it. This set off national alarms; the fact that she hadn't left the country meant the disease was acquired in the continental United States. The CDC sent investigators to the Keys who worked with local health agencies and confirmed at least 27 locally acquired cases in 2009 and an additional 66 in 2010.

Dengue cannot spread from person to person. For the disease to show up the way it did meant that someone already infected must have traveled to Key West and was bitten by an Aedes aegypti, which in turn became infected and traveled around biting other people. Those people now had the virus and spread it to other mosquitoes, which spread it to more people, including Biddle.

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7 comments
Yuwfhan
Yuwfhan

i have not read these articles and i don't claim to know all the facts. You have made the argument that these methods are effective, but are they cheap, pheasible, and most are they safe for other species and the environment. if these mosquitoes are treated with the bacteria is there possibility of this bacteria spreading through a mosquito bite, and if it does will they even have an effect on the bite victims. just wondering

Guest
Guest

There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes. Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index. A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs. This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females. This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost.

Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit.

Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya. There are several other alternatives as well.

What Mosquito Control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases. Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate. With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the adult female lifespan is significantly reduced or there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes. There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida, so this a very real risk. Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season. The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females. The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes.

There are numerous unknowns such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them. As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released. Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem. All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.

mariela fajardo
mariela fajardo

Dengue is an infection produced by those arthropods (mosquito) who have in their prosboscis the disease infecting each host when they are bite by the insect, at least of thousand of cases is seeing all around of USA and the problem it is not only with the A. Aegipty, because we need to realize that in California, in St. Louis it is a common the encephalitis produced by the bite of the mosquito , the Aedes Gambia, Culex Pipiens Quinquefasciatus, Culex Pipiens Pipiens, Culex Nigripapuls, and arthropodo-borne viruses (arboviruses) it is a problem that concern all the community in general, and the CDC needs to take a inmediately decisions to prevent the spread of this virus infections, the same with the colaborations of those companies that have the chemical to remove the large population of mosquito and prevent their offsprings,(progeny) to grow and the transmission of the disease to a large populations,

Budgielover
Budgielover

I don't know about this. Mosquitoes are at the bottom of the food chain, and while they're detrimental to humans, they're a very important part of the ecosystem, eaten by birds, fish, and bats. They also help pollinate crops and plants. While people do not need mosquitoes, they love birdwatching and fishing, two things that may be impacted severely. This experiment may not be too harmful to the environment if it's only going to kill one species of bug, but it it definitely not something to be taken lightly. If there's complications, the ramifications could be enormous. Why not take some time to get third-party analysis and opinions from other environmental experts?

Jason
Jason

Every time I hear "genetically modified" it gives me the creeps. Remember Africanized bees? We may end up with mutant mosquitoes the size of pidgeons, and Key West residents still suffering from Dengue fever. By the way Natasha Marie, I demonize ALL mosquitoes. They are a pain in the a.. when you try to do anything outdoors in the summertime. I'd be willing to pay a pretty-penny for any device that would kill ALL the mosquitoes in a radius of 100 yards when I'm out in the yard. They can have the Everglades...

Natasha Marie Agramonte
Natasha Marie Agramonte

Fair and thorough analysis of this topic that isn't so quick to demonize GM mosquitoes like many people that don't understand the science are apt to do. Also addresses some of the valid concerns of Key West residents and responses to some of those concerns from mosquito experts, some of whom I'm personally familiar. Overall, an excellent article with few mistakes (only one that I caught ... Aedes aegypti is the not only species of mosquito in South Florida capable of spreading dengue virus, but it is the primary vector species in that area)

 
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