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'Bugged' mosquitoes tasked to wipe out dengue


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A novel way to eliminate dengue involves actually exposing more mosquitoes to the environment. Except that these little critters are "bugged."

The mosquitoes are "bugged" with a particular bacterium calledWolbachia, which is considered harmless to humans but blocks a mosquito’s ability to pass the dengue virus off to its offspring and to human hosts. Wolbachia also shortens mosquitoes' lives, Australian Professor Scott O’Neill, Dean of Science at Australia's Monash University, told members of the Philippine government and academe on Thursday. 
O'Neill says that this technique could help save the lives of the approximately 390 million people afflicted by dengue annually worldwide.

Naturally-occuring bacterium

According to Dr. O’Neill, who is also the program leader and lead scientist of the Eliminate Dengue global research program, the Wolbachia bacterium is naturally found in insects such as wasps, butterflies, planthoppers, ants, beetles and even other species of mosquitoes.

The Wolbachia bacterium is injected into mosquito eggs because it can only live inside the insect's cells. The Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes are then released into the environment, where they will hopefully mate with wild mosquitoes. If the "bugged" mosquito is male, it will make its female partner sterile. On the other hand, a "bugged" female mosquito born with Wolbachia can mate and reproduce normally, but will pass the bacteria to its offspring, thereby repeating the cycle.

Currently, Dr. O’Neill’s Eliminate Dengue Program is present in countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Apart from the dengue virus, the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes also have the ability to reduce the transmission of other human viruses such as Chikungunya and yellow fever as well as parasites that cause malaria.

Human safety

Asked if the Wolbachia bacteria may cause harm to humans, O’Neill noted that people are exposed to the bacteria “all the time”, as it is naturally present among 70 percent of insect species.

He explained that the exposure of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the wild would provide a “very negligible risk of any adverse effects” to the environment and humans.

If there would be mutation on the part of infected mosquitoes, Dr. O’Neill believed that it would not be a “potential issue” as mutation occurs “naturally.”

Philippine implementation

Philippine Health Secretary Enrique Ona expressed openness to have O'Neill's program field-tested in the country.

"It's still in the experimental stage, but I suggested to include the Philippines in (O'Neill's) pilot study," Ona told GMA News Online via SMS.

“At the current time, there is no plan to conduct [the program] in the Philippines but it does not mean that it will not happen in the future,” the Monash University Science Dean said.

O'Neill pointed out that the program is still “not a proven intervention at the moment” as three more years of research are needed before widespread implementation can even be considered.

“It is an additional [method, but,] we still do not know how it will work here in the Philippines,” she noted.

The government programs against Malaria include regular fogging and the removal of possible mosquito breeding sites at schools and government offices.

According to Dr. Fe Esperanza Espino, head of the DOH's Parasitology Department at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, one of the greatest hurdle of the DOH’s fight against dengue is community participation.

“Whatever the method of control is, you are going to have to involve the community. And, I think it is not just the responsibility of DOH, it is everyone’s responsibility,” she said.


Hopefully this bacteria is indeed harmless to humans! I would hate to turn into a giant mosquito, or a fly!


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