The Current

Brazil uses genetically modified mosquitoes to fight dengue fever

With just weeks before the FIFA World Cup, Brazil's government has concerns about mosquitoes carrying an infectious and dangerous disease called dengue fever.

With only a couple of weeks to go before the FIFA World Cup, an experiment is underway in Brazil's countryside. The project aims to halt the spread of life-threatening dengue fever using genetically modified mosquitoes.

Brazil's government has concerns about mosquitoes carrying this infectious and dangerous disease. Health officials say the risk is small in most parts of the country where tourists will venture, but a group of scientists has issued a high alert in three host cities in the country's northeast.

Health officials in that region are preparing:

We can't say there definitely won't be a problem. We are on alert for a dengue epidemic. But we have planned for the World Cup, and increased work and a contingency plan in case of a spike.Lucio Pereira, head of the dengue program in Natal

Dengue fever can be life-threatening. There is no specific treatment for it. There is no vaccine to prevent it. So, it's far more than a concern for tourists-- it's a scary reality for people living in Brazil.

One woman in Natal spoke to the BBC:

I had a really bad case of dengue. I was bedridden, my head hurt, my feet hurt, my whole body. I went to the doctor but I was told to get some rest and take paracetamol and lots of fluids. That's all you can do.

Reporter John Otis has been looking at the release of mosquitoes that are unlike anything that's flown in the wild before-- they've been genetically modified. It's a two-year project by Brazil's health authority. And it hopes these newcomers will lead to the eradication of dengue.

The British company, Oxitec, is responsible for this scientific first-- releasing a genetically modified mosquito into the wild.

But many people have reason to feel unease over tampering with nature:

Releasing millions of genetically modified mosquitoes can have unintended effects on ecosystems and that can even be harmful to human health...Dr. Helen Wallace, Director of Gene Watch

Panama also battles dengue fever, and some believe there has to be a better way than with insects that fly out of a lab. The Environmental Advocacy Center in Panama wants to see an end to the trials:

The environmental risk assessment produced...does not include include a lot of aspects regarding the possible risks that these mosquitoes can have on human health, and also the system. Luisa Arauz

  • John Otis is reporting for PRI's The World in Jacobina, Brazil.
  • Margareth Capurro is the Project Co-ordinator with Moscamed, the company implementing the project, and an Associate Professor in Parasitology at the University of Sao Paulo.
  • Haydn Perry is the CEO of Oxitec.
  • Luisa Arauz is a Water Resources and Human Rights Lawyer for the Environmental Advocacy Center in Panama.

What do you think of the use of GMO mosquitoes to combat disease?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Sarah Grant.