Countries battling the Zika virus should consider new ways to curb disease-carrying mosquitoes, including testing the release of genetically modified insects and bacteria that stop their eggs hatching, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
“Given the magnitude of the zika crisis, WHO encourages affected countries and their partners to boost the use of both old and new approaches to mosquito control as the most immediate line of defence,” it said.
The WHO also highlighted the potential of releasing sterile irradiated male mosquitoes, a technique that has been developed at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Zika, which is now sweeping the Americas, is transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which the UN health body described as an “opportunistic and tenacious menace”.
Many scientists believe zika could be linked to microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, in newborns and a serious neurological disorder in adults called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“If these presumed associations are confirmed, the human and social consequences for the over 30 countries with recently detected zika outbreaks will be staggering,” the WHO said.
Fighting the infection at source by eliminating the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes responsible for transmission is moving up the public health agenda, especially as the same insects also spread dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.
However, the concept of wiping out an entire mosquito species also raises serious ecological questions, since it runs counter to preserving biodiversity.
Still, insect control expert Jo Lines at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has few qualms.
“This is an invasive species, so getting rid of these mosquitoes would, if anything, restore the natural ecology, not destroy it,” he told Reuters.
Like rats and pigeons, Dr Lines argues, Aedes aegypti has adapted perfectly to modern urban living by breeding in everything from discarded bottle tops and used car tyres to pet water bowls and vases in cemeteries.
As a result, the diseases it carries are likely to be a growing threat to humankind in the years ahead.
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