Today we travel to a future where humans have decided to eradicate the most dangerous animal on the planet: mosquitos. How would we do it? Is it even possible? And what are the consequences?
Mosquitos have worked hard to earn the nickname “deadliest animal on earth.” According to the World Health Organization there are 20 million cases of dengue virus every year. And there are 214 million cases of malaria, 438,000 of which are deadly. In the United States, an outbreak of West Nile Virus that started in 1999 infected 41,000 people and killed 1700 of them. Since 2005, there have been 1.9 million cases of Chickungunya virus documented in East Asia, and as of last year 1.3 million cases of the virus had been documented in the US and Latin America. Yellow Fever infects 200,000 people every year, and kills about 30,000 of those people.
All of these diseases are carried by mosquitos. For comparison, snakes kill about 50,000 people a year. Humans kill about 475,000 other humans every year. And mosquitos, all told, kill 725,000 people each year.
And recently, with the rise of Zika, people have started wondering aloud once again why we don’t just get rid of the biting bugs.
Whenever you talk about eliminating a whole species, or, in the case of every mosquito, a few thousand species, the question of ecology looms. How important are these animals? What relies on them for food or protection or pollination? According to Cameron Webb, a medical entomologist with the University of Sydney, we still don’t know very much about the role mosquitoes play in the ecosystem.
Unsurprisingly, most of the research that’s done on mosquitoes is done on either how to kill them, or what diseases they might give us. There’s not a ton of work done on their importance in the environment. So we don’t know what might happen to the ecosystem if we were to eliminate them entirely.
What we do know is that we’ve been fighting mosquitoes for a really long time. The CDC was actually founded in response to malaria. And Maryn McKenna, who you might remember from our episode on antibiotic resistance, came back for this episode to tell us about the history of trying to control these mosquito borne illnesses.
So how do we actually kill all these bugs? It won’t be easy. Mosquitoes are sneaky, particularly the species that transmit disease to humans. This future probably involves a combination of things: pesticides, land management, education, and genetic modification. Not on humans, like we talked about in episode 20 from last season. But of the mosquitoes themselves.
To explain how genetically modified mosquitos worked, we talked to Hayden Parry, the CEO of a company called Oxitec that developed and grows these modified insects. The basic premise behind them is to engineer male mosquitoes that can’t produce viable baby mosquitoes. These males mate with regular females, and their offspring all die, thus controlling the population.
All that and more in this week’s episode, so have a listen.
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