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Florida residents are voicing their opposition to the release of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes by a British pest control company; despite the fact that the pesky critters were engineered to impede the spread of dengue fever.
Dengue Fever, which comes from a virus spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, was first recognized in the 1950s, yet has become a leading cause of hospitalization and death among children in tropical Asian and Latin American countries. The incidence of dengue has increased by 30 times in the last 50 years and, according to the World Health Organization
, 2.5 billion people are now at risk.
Mila de Mier, the author of a 96,000-signature online Florida petition, said she began her campaign because she was worried about the lack of scientific understanding surrounding the full impact of the mosquitoes on the Florida ecosystem.
"We need more data. If something goes wrong the consequences could be catastrophic not only for humans but also the whole ecosystem, and I don't want my family being used as laboratory rats for this
," de Mier told the Guardian.
, the U.K. company responsible for the mosquitoes, has developed the insects in laboratories over the past 10 years and released them into the open for the first time in 2009 on the Cayman Islands. Oxitec's GM mosquitoes have also been released on a trial basis in Brazil.
"After a long period of contained evaluation work, we started a series of releases in Brazil in February 2011 in the outdoor environment," reported Margareth Capurro of the University of Sao Paulo, who is leading the project in Brazil.
"Then, from December 2011 we commenced a suppression trial and showed that, in the area where we were releasing the sterile male mosquitoes, we could control the mosquito that spreads dengue fever."
While Brazil was reported to have 1 million cases of dengue fever in 2010 alone, the situation in Florida is much less dire with the last reported case occurring in that same year.
However, mosquito officials in the Keys fear that the disease could re-emerge and deal a swift blow to the state tourism industry, which economically hard-hit Florida depends heavily on. Supporters of the plan said that GM mosquitoes could possibly keep dengue away from the Keys and be less damaging to the local environment than the pesticides that are currently used.
Oxitec officials were quick to dismiss any fears of mutated genes running rampant in the ecosystem saying that only male mosquitoes would be released, which do not bite and would not carry dengue fever. The sterilized mosquitoes would be unable to have offspring, eliminating the danger of the mutation that has been introduced to the males from being passed down the generations.
Despite the fact that the online petition could reach its goal of 150,000 signatures, Florida officials signaled that release of the GM insects may happen regardless due to the power granted to the local health authority.
Hadyn Parry, Oxitec's chief executive, noted that that the company was approached by Florida officials after a dengue fever outbreak was reported in the Keys in 2009 and 2010.
"The decision to go ahead is entirely a local Florida decision - it's not up to us," he said.