Just last week, I received a call from a pollster. It’s election season and I live in a hotly contested ‘swing state,’ so I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me were the questions I was asked, mostly about the Zika virus—its spread and possible prevention. One question especially caught my attention: Are you in favor of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos? Bioethics in a poll question! I could hardly contain my excitement.
Floridians have grown accustomed to mosquito treatments. (See a recent report from the CDC, here.) The government begins by spraying pesticide and encourages residents to get rid of any standing water. Screens and insect repellent also are part of the strategy.
There have been some accounts that the pesticide has had undesirable consequences, including the death of bees. It also produces a concern that pesticide cannot possibly be beneficial to the environment. If traditional methods used to control mosquito populations have not been successful, GM mosquitoes offer a measure of hope. Neuhaus and Caplan note, “The mosquitoes are genetically engineered to express a ‘self-limiting’ gene that kills offspring before they reach adulthood.”
The possibility of GM mosquitoes is not new. According to Ernst, et al., the “Florida Keys Mosquito Control District proposed the first release of a GM mosquito” to help combat an outbreak of dengue fever in Key West, Florida. Now, with concern growing over the Zika virus, GM mosquitoes have become an issue once again. There will be a non-binding referendum in November for the Keys to express their view as to whether or not the GM mosquitoes should be released.
Neuhaus and Caplan speak out for implementation of this proposal. They believe it to be in the best interest of the public and the environment. They base their conclusion in part on the FDA’s conclusion that saw no long-term problems with the release of GM mosquitoes. Others, especially those who live in Key Haven (the site of the release) are voicing their concerns.
Public health officials must always consider the public good. They wrestle with possible unintended consequences and must think beyond solving the problem of the moment, by consider the long-term effects of their decisions. I agree with Ersnt, et al, who observe, “Novel public health strategies require community engagement.” If the Mosquito Control Board finally decides to proceed with GM mosquitoes, many will be watching to see what, if any, long-term implications will follow. Perhaps you might have a genetically modified species in your neighborhood in the not-too-distant future.