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Disease-fighting mosquitoes

August 21, 2018

Humans and mosquitoes are at war. Diseases carried by the insects kill more than half a million people yearly. But scientists could weaponize mosquitoes in the fight against the illnesses they spread.

A cardboard box with the words "eliminate dengue"
Image: R. Richter

Brazil: Can dengue fever be prevented?

Project aim: To use mosquitoes in the fight against infectious diseases like dengue fever
Project implementation: Mosquitoes in the lab are infected with a bacteria that prevents them from spreading illnesses; the lab insects will be released in problem regions where they will pass the inability to spread infection to other mosquitoes
Disease: Each year, 390 million people worldwide are infected with dengue fever
Project size: Scientists are testing the approach in eight countries, the largest of which in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Project partners: The World Mosquito Program is a nongovernmental organization based in Monash University, Australia; it works with a number of other groups, including TheBill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Wellcome Trust and USAID, as well as regional governments in Australia, Brazil and India  

In the mid-1980s, inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro encountered dengue fever for the first time. Previously, the disease — spread by the same mosquito that transmits yellow fever — didn't exist in the region. But the city's high population, poor infrastructure and more frequent and intense flooding triggered by climate change set the scene for its spread.

As temperatures rise, a similar story is playing out across the world. Mosquitoes are spreading into new territories, particularly in urban areas, and are bringing dangerous infections with them. The World Mosquito Program is trying to address the problem without using chemicals or gene editing techniques. Instead, they've turned to the Wolbachia bacteria to halt the spread of dengue, zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.

A film by Robert Richter

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