Is This the End of Dengue Fever?

July 10, 2015

Dengue fever, an incurable viral disease spread by mosquitoes, may one day be a scourge of the past. The infection, also know as ‘Breakbone Fever’ because of its debilitating symptoms, is pandemic in much of the world, sickening over 300 million people each year and killing more than 22,000. It is a leading cause of hospitalization and death in children in many developing countries. Though most people infected with the dengue virus will recover over 1 to 2 weeks, a more severe form of the disease, dengue haemorrhagic fever, can be deadly to children and those with weakened immune systems.

“The real problem with dengue is it occurs in an epidemic fashion, so it can paralyse healthcare systems when it comes through a big city, causing thousands of hospitalisations,” said Gavin Screaton at Imperial College, London.

But two approaches toward the eradication of dengue are making headlines. French and Japanese pharmaceutical companies have successfully produced vaccines which have cleared clinical trials and are now ready for approval. A dengue vaccine is also in development by the  National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the United States. These newer vaccines were developed after the discovery of a group of antibodies found in the blood of people who acquired the virus in SE Asia. These antibodies were effective against all four strains of dengue virus, which makes the vaccine useful in most affected regions.

Now, a UK-based company, Oxitec, has bred a mosquito with a kind of “kill switch” placed within its genes, allowing the vector of the disease to be its own eradicator. The genetically modified male mosquitoes pass on a gene that causes their offspring to die in the larval stage. This method successfully reduced the mosquito population in one Brazilian suburb by 95 percent, more effective than pesticides. A major downside of the Oxitec’s method is that genetically modified male mosquitoes will need to be repeatedly introduced into the environment as the deadly genetic code wipes out its carriers. The good news is that the artificial genes will not persist in the wild.

Debate surrounds the possible deliberate eradication of a species. For opinions over the pros and cons of eliminating much of the world’s mosquitos, see this New York Times piece.

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