LAKE MARY, Fla. - It's a new solution for Florida's oldest problem. Genetically modified mosquitoes are being released in the Florida Keys in an effort to combat persistent insect-borne diseases such as Dengue fever and the Zika virus.
"Mating with females, causing the death of the female offspring and having an impact on the wild Aedes aegypti population," explained Dr. Nathan Rose with Oxitec biotechnology company.
He is referring to the striped-legged Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is not native to Florida.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and the Oxitec announced that release boxes, non-release boxes, and netted quality control boxes are being placed in six locations: two on Cudjoe Key, one on Ramrod Key, and three on Vaca Key.
Less than 12,000 mosquitoes are expected to emerge each week for approximately 12 weeks. Untreated comparison sites will be monitored with mosquito traps on Key Colony Beach, Little Torch Key, and Summerland Key.
"We really started looking at this about a decade ago, because we were in the middle of a dengue fever outbreak here in the Florida Keys," Florida Keys Mosquito Control District executive director Andrea Leal said during a video news conference. "So we’re just very excited to move forward with this partnership, working both with Oxitec and members of the community."
The World Health Organization says mosquitoes are responsible for more than nine million deaths each year. The insect transmits several diseases to humans, particularly in the Keys island chain where dozens of cases of dengue fever were reported last year.
However, doctors in the Keys say this new solution could cause other problems.
"When I heard what they were doing, it looks like a flaw, a ridiculous flaw that pours gasoline on one public health issue to address another," said Key West resident Dr. John Norris.
Dr. Norris says he has concerns about how the mosquitoes are engineered.
"The concern is it could possibly pass resistant bacteria to humans."
However, Oxitec said those concerns have already been addressed.
"The EPA looked at the whole production process and verified there is no risk," Dr. Rose said.
Regardless, Mosquito Control said their time to act is now.
"Unfortunately, we're seeing our toolbox shrinking due to resistance," Leal added. "We are seeing resistance to pesticides throughout most of the state of Florida."
Keys officials approved the pilot project last year.