Zika Readiness Down South

June 29, 2016

As summer gets into swing, concern is rising around the possible spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Though there have not been any confirmed cases of locally acquired mosquito-borne Zika virus in the U.S., the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry and transmit the virus (in addition to dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever) are prevalent in Southeastern states.

So far the states’ official focus is mostly on prevention, education and traditional mosquito population control tactics, rather than new methods that may be more effective in eradicating the mosquitoes and the viruses they carry for good.

Here’s a quick glance at what’s going on in the South.

Regional Response

With concern rising, officials like Tim Hatch, director of environmental programs for the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Center for Emergency Preparedness in Montgomery, are readying their communities. To do so, Hatch attended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Zika Action Plan Summit in March and reported that the CDC is gearing up to do more to raise awareness about Zika locally.

“They’re talking to obstetricians, family doctors and making sure they’re aware of the signs and that they’re educating their patients on protecting themselves,” he said.

Separately, groups like the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) of South Carolina are focusing on encouraging local mosquito-control programs to reduce mosquito populations.

“DHEC has taken an active role in providing information and education to health care providers, local mosquito-control programs, and the general public,” a representative said in a statement. “DHEC has also advised local governments to take action to protect communities from mosquito-borne illnesses.”

Solutions Emerge

Yet, education and traditional vector control can only go so far. Insecticides are shown to reduce mosquito populations by only 30 to 50 percent.

That’s where scientists are stepping in.

Oxitec, a biotechnology company, is helping. The company has conducted trials in Brazil, Panama, and the Cayman Islands, where it released genetically engineered male mosquitoes to combat Aedes aegypti and suppressed the Aedes aegypti population by more than 90 percent.

The male mosquitoes have a “self-limiting gene,” which means that when they breed with wild females, they produce offspring that die before they can reproduce or pass on the virus. The male mosquitoes also die within seven days and therefore Oxitec’s solution does not persist in the environment, unlike insecticides and other methods of mosquito control.

The genetically modified mosquitoes may soon appear for the first time in the U.S. in Florida, where Oxitec is working with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) and the technology is being evaluated by independent regulators. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a preliminary statement of no significant impact to human health or the environment. The project is awaiting final approval before it can move forward in Florida.

In the meantime, the South is doing its part to prepare.