Linda Cunningham: Halting Zika virus creates conundrum in the Keys

Nothing said summer in the old South like the taste of boiled peanuts, the smell of tobacco drying in the barns and a big, ol’ cloud of DDT wafting on the evening breeze.

I was one of the mid-century modern barefoot kids running down the dusty North Carolina street behind the mosquito truck. Every night that toxin-spewing, cancer-causing, birth-defect contributing machine belched DDT.

What did we know? That was decades before we understood DDT’s catastrophic side effects. We thought it smelled great. It also killed mosquitos, which along with chiggers and ringworm were the bane of our outdoor summer playtime.

DDT was then – and remains today — the most effective way to rid the neighborhood of the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito that brings with its bite Dengue and yellow fevers and the Zika virus among other calamities. DDT was 100 percent effective; its side effects were horrendous.

Fast forward to the 2016 Key West conundrum. Do we do whatever it takes to get rid of the Aedes aegypti, or do we stay the course and stick with halfway measures?

This week the Centers for Disease Control said Zika virus causes microcephaly, the devastating tiny brain syndrome. Zika virus is transmitted primarily via the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. Key West, the Florida Keys and the American South are welcome hosts to the Aedes aegypti.

The Zika virus is knocking. How long before our tourists figure out that a vacation in Key West might not be the smartest idea? And, perhaps more to the point, what do local women do if they are planning a pregnancy? The CDC does not know when Zika virus attacks the fetus causing brain damage. It just knows that it does.

Sixty-nine U.S. pregnant women are infected with Zika virus and there are 700 cases to date in the United States. That Zika virus will erupt in Key West is a “when,” not an “if.”

In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the use of DDT and mosquito control folks scrambled for an alternative as the Aedes aegypti mosquito began its successful return to tropical and sub-tropical neighborhoods. The chemical of choice for the past 45 years has been BT, which though not without its problems, is a less damaging chemical than DDT.

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District uses BT, and has reduced the Aedes aegypti population by about 50 percent. That’s not good enough, though, to fend off Dengue fever or Zika, both of which are very real and sinister threats to the Keys, Key West and Florida.

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Enter genetically modified mosquitos. Since 2009-2010, when Dengue fever infected 28 people in the Keys, the mosquito control folks have worked with Oxitec, the world’s foremost mosquito research development company, to release genetically modified mosquitos.

A planned field trial in Key Haven, a neighborhood of about 400 homes just outside Key West, hasn’t been scheduled; it may never happen.

There’s been considerable opposition to the release since it was broached two years ago; the opposition has grown exponentially over the past few weeks.

A recent public hearing brought this threat from Ed Swift, a prominent, long-time resident and business owner: “I don’t want to be your guinea pig. We are being forced to be part of an experiment that we want nothing to do with. I will do everything in my power to defeat you.”

The opposition to the release of the genetically modified mosquitos is sincere. We are a nation upset over anything tagged “genetically modified,” even though we’d be hard-pressed to give up our apples and tomatoes on the winter dinner table, or our raisin bran in the morning.

The science on the effectiveness of genetically modifying mosquitos is decent, but not conclusive. And, because Oxitec is both a for-profit company and its work in the field virtually without competition, many opponents suspect the worst.

The genetically modified approach appears to eliminate the Aedes aegypti mosquito and with it, the reduction in Zika virus and Dengue fever. There’s been a 90 percent reduction of the Aedes aegypti mosquito in the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Malaysia and Panama, where field trials have been done.

But…DDT worked, too.

I’m not convinced we ought to release the genetically modified mosquitos. Not because I am opposed as a matter of principle to genetic modification, but because I want to know more.

The concerns of the “not in my backyard” opposition is drowning out any chance of listening, learning, asking questions and weighing the possible unintended consequences. For now, it’s “if you’re not with us, you’re agin us.”

We know this for sure: Zika and Dengue are deadly. BT isn’t getting the job done. DDT isn’t an alternative. If not genetically modified mosquitos, what?

***

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a digital media solutions company for small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

 

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