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Zika, West Nile Virus And Mutant Mosquitoes 14

Scientists are thinking up new ways to prevent Zika and west Nile Virus in Texas. Still, some say the older ideas might be better.

The KERA radio story.

If you’re a pregnant woman in Texas, your chance of getting Zika is very low, says Dr. Seema Yasmin. “Because we haven’t detected the virus in any mosquitoes, yet.”

But, if you’re a pregnant woman who has plans to travel to Brazil or somewhere else where there’s a Zika epidemic, the advice from physicians and the CDC is to think about postponing your plans. Yasmin, a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News and professor at UT Dallas, says pregnant women in Texas are also being told to arm themselves with bug spray, even DEET.

The CDC has approved DEET for pregnant women, but Yasmin says some pregnant women are still hesitant to douse it on.

At the city level, some municipalities are talking about alternative ways to combat the mosquito population. Yasmin talked with the CEO of a British-based biotech company, Oxitec, about their mutant mosquitoes — engineered so that their offspring die as babies.

“They genetically engineer the males so that when the males go out into the wild and mate with the female, they produce offspring but those offspring never reach adulthood,” Yasmin says.

The thing is, there are more than 50 types of mosquitoes in North Texas. Right now, the genetically modified mosquito Oxitec is releasing in parts of Brazil to combat Zika is the Aedes Aegypti. Scientists believe other mosquitoes, like the Asian tiger mosquito, are also capable of carrying the Zika virus.

Zika may be in the headlines, but that virus isn’t the only mosquito-related concern in Texas. UNT Biology Professor James Kennedy is worried about West Nile Virus. There have already been mosquitoes that tested positive for West Nile Virus in North Texas, and Kennedy says this could be a good year for Culex quinquefasciatus — the most common carrier of West Nile virus in Denton.

“I do expect this, potentially, is definitely is going to be a good year for mosquitoes in terms of their numbers and could be a year that we’re going to see West Nile resurgence again,” he says.

Kennedy says there is a big difference between the way West Nile and Zika viruses spread. Whereas the West Nile virus primarily spreads from birds to mosquitoes and from mosquitoes back to birds, Zika is propagated within humans and can be spread from humans to mosquitoes. That means mosquitoes that bite infected humans can then pass the Zika virus on other people.

“So if we see Zika,” Kennedy says, “it will show up in humans before we actually detect it in the mosquito population.”

Both Kennedy and Yasmin say the standard advice for avoiding mosquito bites still holds: wear long sleeves and long pants (this applies during the day as well, since the mosquito that commonly carries Zika is an aggressive day biter); wear insect repellent; remove possible breeding grounds for the bugs by emptying any standing water in yards and use screens in homes.