I recently reported on the chikungunya virus that is raging in South America. There are concerns that Florida could be the next epicenter of the epidemic.

Thanks to climate change and globalization, the Keys are also increasingly home to killer tropical diseases such as dengue fever and chikungunya spread by Aedes aegypti, a tiger-striped mosquito that originated in Africa. Just last year, a few dozen people in the Sunshine State were infected with these formerly exotic illness as they made their up the Gulf Coast.

“The threat is greater than I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Walter Tabachnick, director of the Florida Medical Entomological Laboratory, said last year. “Sooner or later, our mosquitoes will pick it up and transmit it to us. That is the imminent threat.”

One could quibble as to if the cause of the increase, but the threat is increasingly concerning public health officials no matter the reason.

In response, one British research and development firm is trying to obtain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to run an experiment in the Florida Keys…involving the release of millions of genetically modified mosquitoes:

Enter Oxitec, a British biotech firm launched by Oxford University researchers. They patented a method of breeding Aedes aegypti with fragments of proteins from the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria as well as genes from coral and cabbage. This synthetic DNA has been used in thousands of experiments without harming lab animals, but it is fatal to the bugs, killing mosquito larvae before they can fly or bite.

Oxitec’s lab workers manually remove modified females, aiming to release only males, which feed on nectar and don’t bite for blood like females do. The modified males then mate with wild females whose offspring die, reducing the population.

…Company spokeswoman Chris Creese said the test will be similar in size to Oxitec’s 2012 experiment in the Cayman Islands, where 3.3 million modified mosquitoes were released over six months, suppressing 96 percent of the targeted bugs. Oxitec says a later test in Brazil also was successful, and both countries now want larger-scale projects.

Given how many people complain about genetically modified foods, it should come as no surprise that Florida residents are uncomfortable with the idea of a blood-drawing insect being genetically altered—using bits and pieces from herpes viruses and E.coli bacteria. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition demanding that no testing be conducted until third-party research as been concluded.

…What about our native species of Florida Keys Bats. Are there any studies being conducted to see if these mosquitoes will harm the native bat population?

Why would we not expect GM (genetically modified) insects, especially those that bite humans, to have similar unintended negative consequences? Will the more virulent Asian tiger mosquito that also carries dengue fill the void left by reductions in A. aegypti? Will the dengue virus mutate (think antibiotic resistant MRSA) and become even more dangerous?

…Where is the third-party, peer-reviewed research on effectiveness and safety of GM mosquitoes other than Oxitec’s own claims of success? Don’t let Oxitec bully our community…

As much as I appreciate the benefits of modern science, I can’t help but recall this scene from a movie about a DNA experiment that went in an entirely different direction than the one the scientists intended:

However, experts are looking at another innovative technology that could help with Florida’s bug problem. Send in the drones!

Floating in place until Glenn Cullingford, chief pilot for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, directs it from his controller, the unmanned droned is a fraction of the size of the helicopters and planes buzzing at Florida Keys Marathon Airport.

But don’t let the smaller stature fool you — it may become one of the district’s most cost-saving tools. With a camera mounted to the bottom of the flying device, field agents will have a bird’s eye view of mosquito breeding grounds and better range at killing disease-carrying insects.

Given how many old health problems have returned to this country with a vengeance, finding a way to kill disease carriers without decimating native life or harming human health is a much higher priority than lifestyle “diseases” that have been the focus of public health bureaucrats for too long. Just ask America’s most recent chikugunya victim…Lindsay Lohan!

[Featured Image: From Florida Sun-Sentinel video]