Zika, the virus sweeping the Americas and projected by some to be the next public health emergency, is surprisingly mild in symptom – ranging from a slight fever, to headache and skin rash – but undertakes a means of transmission which has led to the re-emergence of a much more established debate.
The world’s deadliest animal, the mosquito, is Zika’s choice of courier, and though many who have been bitten will never actually show any sign of infection, the disease is rapidly becoming the number one suspect for the increase in cases of microcephaly (a neurological condition leading to birth defects) in Brazil.
Speaking in this Ted Talk, Chief Executive Officer Hadyn Parry of British company Oxitec offers one of them. He proposes the new age of biotech solvency: genetically modified, sterile mosquitoes. By altering the DNA of their mosquitoes to prevent fertility, Oxitec are able to drastically decrease the population of offspring, killing off an entire generation of otherwise contagious messengers to the virus.
However, concerns with GM still need to be put at rest. There are accusations that the GM mosquitoes may actually be the cause of Zika, as well as doubts about Oxitec’s strategic effectiveness in the long-run. Though successful tests have already been run in the Cayman Islands and Brazil, it is almost impossible to take the next step in ascertaining the level of logistical effort required to defend an entire country.
Other measures such as increased public education on bite prevention, clearing of popular mosquito breeding grounds and vaccine development are currently being, or have begun to be, implemented. Some say old-fashioned methods may prove valuable in the fight against the poorly understood disease whilst others are standing behind what could prove to be the new era in medical science.
For now, the world can merely stand back and observe companies like Oxitec and Bharat Biotech to see if they will provide the innovation needed to solve one of the world’s oldest and most widespread health issues or, if the cynicism surrounding GM proves justified, traditional methods will trump once again.