Altered skeeter update: Infecting mosquitoes to fight dengue

The idea of altering mosquitoes to fight disease appears to be quite contagious.

It’s almost become a news category unto itself, with at least a story every month or so involving something like:

Bacteria.

Scientists in Australia want to expand upon successful field tests indicating that infecting mosquitoes with a particular bacteria, known as Wolbachia, prevents the bugs from transmitting the dengue virus.

Dengue cases over time

Dengue, also known as dengue fever or “break-bone” fever, is exploding worldwide and so there are a number of efforts underway to stave off the epidemic, including finding a vaccine and, well, messing with mosquitoes.

Here are a number of good stories on the latest strategy aimed at fighting disease by messing with mosquitoes:

NPR:  Better you than me: Scientists sicken mosquitoes to stop dengue

WashPost: Field tests show bacterial oddball may be a dengue destroyer

Nature News: Bacterium offers way to control dengue fever

Guardian: Injecting mosquitoes with bacteria could stop dengue fever

Few of the news reports go into much detail scrutinizing the potential adverse side-effects, whether to humans, the environment or the skeeters, but that’s routine for news stories based on early stage scientific studies.

The bacterium, Wolbachia, is a common insect infector and is widely regarded as fairly benign if not downright beneficial. Still, you never know when you fool with Mother Nature — which is why we do phased scientific testing.

Another problem with any intervention is evolution, aka resistance. Bugs have a way of finding ways around things that get in their way. Still, the scientists say, if this approach can work for a decade or so we will do much to hold the dengue explosion at bay.

I’ll be writing more later about the dengue vaccine research, which is perhaps less exciting than manipulating skeeters but perhaps more feasible.

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.