Kicked back in a chair is Joel Biddle, a mellow, slow-talking, Bermuda-born man who operates at a cosmic tempo that matches the pace of life near the southernmost point of the continental United States. His thick, bushy white hair, lazily parted to the side, flops around as he gestures with his meaty hands. Biddle's smooth skin and striped pants belie his 68 years.

Three years ago, Biddle sat on the edge of his bed in tremendous pain staring at his feet. His bones ached. His head had the woozy, second-behind sensation that accompanies a fever. "I was completely out of my mind," he recalls. "I had been sick for two weeks and thought I finally had the strength to go to the clinic. I put a sock on my foot, which was hard to do, and just sat there for three hours. Then I just went back to bed."

An Aedes aegypti mosquito had pierced Biddle's skin and infected him with the virus that causes dengue fever, an ailment that's earned the ominous nickname of "break bone fever." Each year, upward of 100 million people are infected around the world, and about 25,000 — mostly in Latin American and Asian countries — die from the most severe form. The World Health Organization calls dengue a "fast emerging pandemic prone viral disease" whose rates have "increased 30-fold over the last 50 years." There's no approved vaccine and no treatment. Thankfully, though, dengue is exceedingly rare in the U.S.

"It's debilitating," Biddle concedes. "It's a tough disease, and I can see why [public health officials] are afraid of it."

No one at the table underestimates the severity of dengue or the potential threat it poses to tourism — an industry they all rely on directly or indirectly. And the more mosquitoes and the more tourists, the bigger the threat.

There are, according to some estimates, 40,000 mosquitoes for every person in the United States. In most of the U.S., mosquito season lasts four months. In South Florida, it's ten months, sometimes 12, depending on rainfall. Because most Florida counties have had mosquito control programs in place since the 1950s or '60s, modern-day Floridians take their relatively mosquito-free lifestyles for granted. It can be tough to appreciate the extent of mayhem once stirred by "our species most deleterious pest," as environmental historian Gordon Patterson puts it in his book The Mosquito Wars: A History of Mosquito Control in Florida.

In the late 19th Century, when Florida was referred to as "the Devil's property," swarms were so dense in some areas that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes. Union soldiers struggled with the pests during the Civil War, bundling up in overcoats despite the sweltering heat to stave off bites. In August 1864, Acting Master Mate Van Ness of the USS Chambers ­­— a Union ship patrolling the coast of what's now Brevard County — committed suicide by jumping overboard to escape being eaten alive. A "mystery disease" broke out among the remaining crew and killed five. Patterson quips, "Confederate sympathizing mosquitoes were victorious."

Livestock also suffered. In September 1932, in Cape Sable, near the southern tip of the state, 80 cows, 67 hogs, 20 chickens, three horses, two dogs, and one mule were killed in a single night by a blitz of mosquitoes. As noted by Patterson, the animals died either from sheer blood loss, nervous exhaustion, or a toxin. Though mosquito attacks were excruciating and craze-inducing, the diseases they spread have always been more dangerous. Over the course of mankind's history, mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and yellow fever, have combined to kill billions of people.

Dengue, though less lethal than malaria and yellow fever, has soared in the Caribbean in recent years. In 2011, the CDC issued a travel advisory for the Bahamas after 1,000 suspected cases were recorded in a one-month span. In Puerto Rico, more than 21,000 cases — representing a financial burden of $40 million — were reported in 2010, the most in the history of the island. But the last major outbreak of dengue in Florida occurred back in 1934, when nearly 1,500 of the 2,000 cases were concentrated in Broward and Miami-Dade. Noxious chemicals like DDT that were brewed in the "Better Living Through Chemistry" era played a vital role in suppressing the disease.

Only a few cases emerged in Florida over the following decades, mostly in people who had picked up the virus while abroad. But in 2009, a woman from New York who had traveled to Key West was diagnosed with it. This set off national alarms; the fact that she hadn't left the country meant the disease was acquired in the continental U.S. The CDC sent investigators to the Keys who worked with local health agencies and confirmed at least 27 locally acquired cases in 2009 and an additional 66 in 2010.

Dengue can't spread from person to person. For the disease to show up the way it did meant that someone already infected must have traveled to Key West and was bitten by an Aedes aegypti, which in turn became infected and traveled around biting other people. Those people now had the virus and spread it to other mosquitoes, which spread it to more people, including Biddle.

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10 comments
rana7071
rana7071

I completely agree with the above comment, the internet is with a doubt growing into the most important medium of communication across the globe and its due to sites like this that ideas are spreading so quickly. Thank you for the article. I just about passed your blog up in Google but now I'm glad I clicked the link and got to read through it. I'm definitely a little better informed now. I'll be sharing your site with some other people I know. They'll get a kick out of what I just read too.

orlando roofing contractor

Organic Green Earth Solutions
Organic Green Earth Solutions

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Jared Pitcher
Jared Pitcher

DEATH TO THE MOSQUITOS! The Dengue Virus is a Terrorist that invades cells and Hijacks the cell's ribosomes to make copies of itself that will go on to invade/hijack other cells. This Virus has potential to be transfered to a different species including Homo sapiens. www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDRRKA8CJHk .The goal is to stop cell division and PREVENT these creatures from transmitting this horrible Virus to other species. Dengue is Deadly, and Oxitec holds the patent on this amazing tool to lower the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, generation by generation. The FDA is setting an example for the world, and must not disappoint.

FQS9000
FQS9000

It's so scary and I'm so stupid.  A terrible combination.  Let's have a study.  A real big, long and expensive study with lots of Phds and bureaucrats.  I don't care how many people die in the mean time so long as it isn't anybody in my family, then I'll sue the shit out of everybody who might have a dollar. 

Adam Czyrek
Adam Czyrek

Can someone give me an example of previous geo/bio engineering that had greater benefits than the eventual risks? This is a real, almost non-snarky question. On the bad side we have, rabbits in Australia, dams stopping salmon, snakes in Hawaii... Seriously give me one example of relatively harm free bio engineering please. Also, I wonder how far this UK company would get releasing GM mozzies in their home country.. ?

Guest
Guest

There are several cheap, effective and environmentally friendly alternatives to GM mosquitoes.  Native plants that repel Aedes aegypti like American Beautyberry can be used as screening to reduce the House Index.  A study using repellent plants in Tanzania reduced all mosquitoes found in houses by 50%, the cost was $1.50 per house which includes maintenance and labor costs.  This can be used with attractants and lethal ovitraps using used coffee grounds or other cheap environmentally friendly larvicides, as well as fan traps on the lethal ovitraps to not only reduce the larvae survival but also catch the adult females.  This push pull method may not only reduce the larvae from surviving, but unlike GM mosquitoes will also target the adult females and reduce the chance of Aedes aegypti entering the home, and at a fraction of the cost.

Other methods include the use of some strains of the fungi Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which some peer reviewed studies suggest can also reduce the survival of Aedes aegypti offspring, but unlike GM mosquitoes can also cause mortality in the adult females, thus reducing both the population and the chance of being bit.

Yet another example is use of the bacteria Wolbachia, which some peer reviewed studies suggest may reduce the adult Aedes aegypti lifespan by 50% and unlike GM mosquitoes may actually provide resistance against dengue serotype 2 and chikungunya.  There are several other alternatives as well.

What mosquito control has failed to mention is that releasing millions of GM mosquitoes including thousands of females could potentially increase the risk of transmitting mosquito-borne diseases.  Releasing millions of male mosquitoes may also increase the risk of chikungunya which a peer reviewed study suggested can be spread when Aedes aegypti mate.  With each male mating as many as 21 times in their lifetime that is a huge risk not worth taking unless the adult female lifespan is significantly reduced or there is resistance against chikungunya, which doesn't appear to be the case for GM mosquitoes.  There have been over 100 cases of chikungunya reported in the U.S. between 2006 and 2009 including cases in Florida so this a very real risk.  Florida entomologist Walter J. Tabachnick, estimated that if an outbreak that occurred in Italy had occurred in Key West it would have caused 1,200 cases of chikungunya and 4,000 cases if it occurred during tourist season.  The Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae alternatives both reduce the lifespan of the adult female and therefore reduce the chance of chikungunya spreading, they can also be used without releasing more males but instead infecting the already existing males and/or females.  The Wolbachia alternative may reduce the lifespan of adult female Aedes aegypti and may even provide resistance against chikungunya, so even if more males were released there would be a significantly reduced risk of spreading chikungunya compared to GM mosquitoes.

There are numerous unknows such as whether or not the synthetic protein based on sequences from E.coli and the Herpes simplex virus that the GM mosquitoes express could be transmitted to humans during a bite or affect animals ingesting them.  As well as a partially independent lab reporting 15% of the GM mosquito offspring surviving in the presence of chicken found in cat food and a member of the mosquito control district admitting that Aedes aegypti have been found breeding in pet dishes, making such an event likely if GM mosquitoes are released.  Along with Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory's Phil Lounibos stating there is no supporting background evidence that GM mosquitoes would solve a dengue problem.  All of this and more makes a GM mosquito release seem like an expensive, pointless and potentially risky proposal.

CALZONE
CALZONE

Hey Nutbag scientists! S-T-O-P F$@#ng with mother nature! YOU are killing us (WE THE PEOPLE) with your Quack science

Bill
Bill

Mosquito Control does not even have permits for aerial spraying of pesticides.  Check that fact.  They are irresponsible and ignorant.  I don't trust them for a minute, and I don't trust their plan for releasing genetically modified Mosquitoes.

The new Middle Class Party
The new Middle Class Party

paranoid? Do they require a permit? Perhaps you would like the mosquitoes back and render South Florida uninhabitable? Did you get a permit to post this comment?

 
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