Could sterile mosquitoes be key to fighting dengue?

Could sterile mosquitoes be key to fighting dengue?
Published: Nov. 27, 2015 at 8:49 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 27, 2015 at 11:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the midst of a dengue fever outbreak, it might not sound like such a good idea to release additional mosquitoes in Hawaii. Dengue fever is spread by mosquitoes, after all.

But some doctors believe mosquitoes -- or more precisely, genetically-modified mosquitoes -- could be a potent tool in fighting off the spread of dengue, and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Scientists in England have created a sterile male mosquito, which if released, would flood a region with genetically-altered mosquitoes and eventually kill off a population.

"Males actually don't bite. The females bite in order to prepare to be able to lay eggs," said Dr. Sarah Park, state epidemiologist for the Hawaii Department of Health.

She says health department officials were recently contacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about sterile mosquitoes. Officials note any release of mosquitoes would have to go through several layers of approvals.

"The thought was Hawaii is an ideal location to try this because we share no borders and we have the capacity to potentially if this works have islands with no mosquitoes," Park said.

DOH officials mentioned the idea to lawmakers during a briefing on dengue fever earlier this month.

The project comes as the Health Department is being criticized for its work to stem the dengue fever outbreak. As of Friday, there have been 107 confirmed cases of dengue fever on Hawaii Island since Sept. 11.

Of the 107 cases, 93 have been Big Island residents and 24 have been minors. All are recovering or have recovered.

The outbreak has spurred vector control spraying across Hawaii Island; the Health Department has also asked residents to get rid of standing water on their properties. Since the outbreak started, state crews have sprayed for mosquitoes at 167 sites.

The outbreak has so far not affected any other islands.

Park said getting rid of mosquito populations would be a big win for public health.

"Mosquitoes die off anywhere from a few days to a few weeks so if we can keep our prevention measures long enough for mosquitoes to die off and not to perpetuate then there's no more threat," she said.

The FDA is currently evaluating whether releasing sterile mosquitoes is safe. Florida, another state with mosquito problems, could be the first to test the sterile mosquitoes.

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