Monday, September 19, 2016

Using genetic techniques to kill mosquitoes, prevent disease, save forest birds--this is a bad thing?

In a democracy, we listen to everybody, respect everybody’s opinion, but we go with the majority.

That’s not to say the majority is always right, because we know that’s not the case. 

But a lot of the time, the minority is just plain off-base. And sometimes there are minimal risks that you’re willing to take for a major benefit. 

In Florida, there’s a minority that’s fighting the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in fighting the Zika virus. (Spend some time looking at the comments on that article from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.)

And there have already been murmurings in the Hawaiian Islands about fighting any effort to use genetic techniques to fight mosquitoes.


Here are three of the options. (There are others)

One. Do nothing, and let children be born with crippling brain damage associated with Zika. 

Two. Spray insecticides throughout the community. This also has the beneficial effect of damaging roach, spider and ant populations, but will also impact birds, pollinators and others.

Three. Then there is this targeted mechanism for attacking only the individual species about which we’re concerned. Here’s the website of one of the companies working on genetic modifications designed to reduce mosquito populations.

Essentially, they release male mosquitoes that have been bred to produce offspring that can’t survive. The males mate with wild females. And the resulting mosquitoes die before they can breed or bite.

I’ve already heard an early, still-soft drumbeat of people in Hawai`i opposing the use of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Islands.

But let’s look at some facts about skeeters in the Islands. 

Mosquitoes are not from here. They are not native to the Islands, so there’s no rare and endemic species issue with disappearing them.

They are annoying as heck, buzzing around your ears at night, sucking your precious bodily fluids from any bare skin they can locate.

They spread disease to humans. Diseases like dengue and Zika. And, oh shucks, let’s name a few more. Chikungunya, Yellow Fever, Malaria, West Nile Virus, several kinds of encephalitis, and the horror of filiariasis and the resulting disease, elephantiasis. 

Mosquitoes spread disease to rare native birds, almost none of which have resistance to mosquito-borne diseases like avian pox and avian malaria. It may be the primary cause of the loss of our native forest birds.

Have you experienced the heartbreak of a dog suffering from heartworm? Yes. Mosquito-spread.

If you reduce the mosquito count, it’s hard to imagine anyone or anything that might be negatively impacted, besides some mosquito-eating fish.

It’s not as if this is an untested process. It has already been deployed in three South American countries and has dramatically reduced the populations of the Zika mosquito, Aedes aegypti. And without negative impacts. 

But the opposition is firm. Helen Wallace, of the British environmental group GeneWatch , pulls no punches in this quote from The New Yorker.

“This mosquito is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, plain and simple. To open a box and let these man-made creatures fly free is a risk with dangers we haven’t even begun to contemplate.”
You can find the entire litany of anti-GM technology regarding mosquitoes at GeneWatch’s fact sheet

One of them: Don’t kill these mosquitoes, or other mosquitoes might benefit. 
Another: What if people swallowed one? 
Another: If you release a lot of mosquitoes, there will be more mosquitoes around for a while.
Another: Maybe something else could be causing Zika, too, so study that before trying to kill off mosquitoes.

There is a whole paralysis by analysis issue. You can always find a new question, no matter how many have already been answered. 

GeneWatch’s position seems to be to do nothing, but continue studying until GeneWatch can come up with no more questions. 

It’s not clear what the alternatives are. Letting people get sick? Clouds of pesticides around homes? Irradiated mosquitoes? 

In every major public issue, there are impacts of action and impacts of inaction. On this one, the balance seems clearly to weight in favor of action.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

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