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Sterilizing Mosquitos Could Save Thousands of Lives

FILE - Adult mosquitos.
FILE - Adult mosquitos.

U.N. agencies say early next year, several countries will begin testing a nuclear technique that sterilizes male mosquitoes to control the spread of dengue, Zika and chikungunya to humans. Guidance for testing countries has been developed by the Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization says diseases transmitted by mosquitoes account for 17 percent of all infectious diseases globally. It says every year, more than 700,000 people die from diseases such as malaria, dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.

The WHO says dengue has increased dramatically in recent years due to factors such as environmental changes, urban sprawl, and transportation and travel, putting half the world’s population at risk of catching the diseases.

Jeremy Bouver is a medical entomologist at the joint Food and Agriculture Organization and International Atomic Energy Agency. He says a novel technique that uses radiation to sterilize male mosquitoes offers new opportunities for controlling disease. He describes the Sterile Insect Technique as a form of insect birth control.

“You release sterile males that will out compete the wild males in the field and they will induce sterility in the females so that their eggs will not hatch," Bouver said. "And, so, you will control the next generation. And, if you do that for a long time enough, you will be able to reduce and even, in some cases, eliminate the target population.”

The technique was developed in the late 1950s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has been successfully used to control insect pests from attacking crops and livestock, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly.

A pilot program that will start early next year will be the first time the Sterile Insect Technique will be tested targeting human diseases. The countries where the trials will take place will be announced next year, although a few likely candidates reportedly include the United States, France and Brazil.