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zika virus

Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

Mosquitoes are attracted to certain viral smells in both humans and mice.

As much as I love summer, there is one thing I could do without: bugs. More specifically, mosquitoes. Those pesky little buggers can wreak havoc on a beautiful summer day. Who hasn't spent time outside in summer and then come in all itchy and covered in bites? There are multiple reasons why some people are more susceptible to mosquito bites than others, but there's a new one that likely isn't on people's radars. Mosquitoes could be attracted to the odor certain viruses create in the body.

There is evidence that mosquitoes are attracted to the odor given off by mice infected by the parasite that causes malaria. Now, a team is looking at how the scent of mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue and Zika would attract mosquitoes to people rather than mice.


For those who may be unfamiliar with the two viruses, the most important thing to know about them both is how dangerous they are to humans. Some effects of dengue include vomiting, aches and pains, and in severe cases, internal bleeding, according to the CDC. Zika virus is best known for being dangerous for pregnant women, as it can cause certain kinds of birth defects in fetuses, per the CDC.

Because both viruses rely on mosquitoes for transmission, it begs the question: Do people infected with either viruses give off extra tasty odors? That's what the team was looking to discover.

"I mean, the infection just increase[s] the chance to be located by a mosquito," Penghua Wang, an immunologist with University of Connecticut Health, told NPR.

Wang and the rest of his team set out to find out if it's true that infected people become mosquito chow, and undertook a study, which was recently published in the journal Cell. In the study, they blew two different types of air: one infected with either of the two viruses and one without, over two different groups of mice. As to be expected, the mosquitoes buzzed around those infected mice like they were a buffet dinner.

"These two viruses can alter a person's body odor to be more attractive to mosquitoes," Wang said. What happens is that the smell alters the skin's microbiome to make it more appetizing to the blood-sucking little critters. Wang explained to NPR that he was "excited" by this new development as it could lead to a lot of understanding of virus transmission by mosquitoes.

While this is an incredibly positive prospect, it's important to keep in mind that experimenting on mice isn't really the same as experimenting on people. And just because this is going well with mice doesn't mean it will go well with people. But, during the study, the team discovered that people infected with dengue had similar attention from the mosquitoes.

The other promising thing? Since they've discovered the attraction, they were also able to find a possible treatment plan. They discovered that when they gave the sick mice a vitamin A supplement, the mosquitoes lost interest. Knowing this information can help researchers explore how Zika and dengue spread. According to Wang, in some of the areas where dengue and Zika are most common, many people are vitamin A deficient.

Whatever they discover, I'm very curious to see if this information will offer insight on not only how diseases get spread, but also what makes people (like me) more susceptible to getting bitten in the first place.




In between patients, Dr. Leah Torres, an OB/GYN specializing in reproductive and sexual health, said something illuminating.

"We have to call out what being anti-abortion really is — it's reproductive coercion," she said. In other words, being anti-abortion is forcing someone to give birth against their will.

That's why recent moves by the UN are so important. In 2001, it declared that the ability to access abortions is a human right. It even awarded reparations to K.L., a Peruvian woman who was denied the right to an abortion after discovering her fetus had a fatal birth defect.


And late last year, the UN upheld the ruling.

Case closed, right? Abortion access for all!

Wrong.

When you think of countries that violate their citizens' human rights, the U.S. probably isn't one of the first nations to come to mind. Sadly, however, when it comes to abortion, a lot of organizations and state leaders are trying to do just that. More than 43 years after the historic Roe v. Wade decision, efforts to end legal abortion are running full steam ahead, ranging from legislative actions to protests and rallies to even terrorist attacks.


Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

In many countries, abortion is just outright illegal — a clear violation of the UN's stance.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, just four territories allow abortion without exception: Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay. In Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname, abortion is outlawed without exception. Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Dominica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela allow abortion only when it's required to save the life of the mother.

Why the focus on these countries? Because there's a new challenge facing these areas that's making the question of abortion that much more pressing: the Zika virus.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This mosquito is also responsible for transmitting chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

The Zika virus has been linked to severe birth defects, and it just so happens to thrive in many of these same countries.

Specifically, it's been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that typically includes permanent brain damage.

In response to the spread of Zika, the government of El Salvador — which bans abortion — is advising women not to get pregnant until 2018. As it's sometimes not so easy as to simply not get pregnant, that advice is not especially helpful.

Torres says there are a host of reasons someone may not want to give birth to a child with a severe birth defect like microcephaly.

"It may be inhumane to give birth to a child with severe birth defects, or parents may be incapable of caring for them, but only the one facing the decision of continuing the pregnancy can decide."

Simply put, she adds, "people must be empowered to make decisions regarding life they bring into the world."

A six-week-old baby born with microcephaly. The heads of babies born with microcephaly are significantly smaller than a healthy baby's. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Between the risks of giving birth to a child with microcephaly and the general risks of pregnancy, abortion is a truly necessary option.

"People have this notion that because pregnancy is a part of our reproductive lives and continuing the species that it is perfectly safe," Torres says. "It is far from safe."

Having an abortion early in a pregnancy is 14 times safer than carrying the fetus to term and giving birth. There are risks involved in any medical procedure, and it's barbaric to revoke someone's right to decide what risks are worth taking on to them.

"When we undermine the risks undertaken and sacrifices made by those who do give birth to our children, we are showing a severe lack of gratitude and it is inhumanly insulting."

Pro-choice activists at the Supreme Court on the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Yes, abortion rights are human rights. Now it's time we all started acting like it.

Nobody — not your Congressperson, not Dr. Torres, not me, not your next-door neighbor — should have a say in what you choose to do with your own body. Whether someone has an abortion is a very personal, often difficult decision. No one will ever force you to have an abortion, nor should you be able to force someone to give birth. That's just how it works.

Sadly, the UN's ruling is mostly toothless. That's why it's on us to advocate on behalf of people to have the right to choose whether an abortion is the right option for them. It's especially important in situations like the Zika epidemic.

Whether someone's reason behind getting an abortion is the Zika virus or it simply being the wrong time in their life to have a child — or anything else — that decision needs to be their call, not anybody else's.

True
Gates Foundation

Let's be honest: No one likes mosquitoes.

I try to avoid broad sweeping generalizations like that — but c'mon. Mosquitoes? Seriously? Gross. And unless you're a frog prince (in which case you're dealing with some other issues), you probably share my distaste for the little bloodsuckers.

Best-case scenario? They're just plain annoying.

They show up invited and ruin your picnic, leaving behind a wretched rash of itchy red bumps in their wake.


GIF via thegatesnotes/YouTube.

Worst case? They gift you some disease like malaria, West Nile virus, or the recently-relevant Zika virus. And if you thought bug bites were awful, try putting up with something called breakbone fever.

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Or, ya know, death. Did I mention that mosquito-borne illnesses kill more than half a million people every year, making them the deadliest creatures on the planet? And climate change is making it increasingly easier for them to spread their once-tropical sicknesses to the rest of the world.

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Not bad for a bug that only lives around 10 days and hardly travels the length of two football fields in its lifetime.

Just a chill mosquito infecting your blood stream with a horrible sickness. GIF via thegatesnotes/YouTube.

That's why we need more of them, and fast.

Wait — what?!?! How do more mosquitoes help anything?

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For that answer, you'll have to ask the folks at Oxford Insect Technologies, also known as Oxitec. Founded by Hadyn Parry in 2002, Oxitec is pioneering a sustainable and environmentally-conscious method of eradicating mosquito-borne illnesses.

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But instead of focusing on vaccinations for dengue, Zika, and other virus strains, Oxitec is focusing on the delivery method of these terrible diseases — the mosquitoes themselves.

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What better way to do that than to release thousands of weaponized mutant mosquitoes into the wild to breed?

♫ Do a little dance. Make a little love. Get down tonight. ♫ GIF cia thegatesnotes/YouTube.

Enter: SEXYTIME FRANKENSTEIN DEATH MOSQUITOES.

(That's what I call 'em, anyway. The folks at Oxitec call them OX513A, which is decidedly less catchy.) 

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As it turns out, there are more than 3,500 known species of mosquitoes on the planet, but only two of them — the Aedes aegypti and the Aedes albopictus — actually feed on human blood. And of those species, the females are the ones that actually do the biting, occasionally passing along some fatal viruses in the process.

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That's why the clever folks at Oxitec found a way to breed scientifically-modified male mosquitoes whose sole purpose is weaponized reproduction. 

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"Hello, ladies!" GIF from thegatesnotes/YouTube.

These lab-grown suckers have an altered gene that, without the antidote that's readily available in the Oxitec hatchery, will ultimately cause the bugs to break down and die. 

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This doesn't happen immediately of course. And once the infected mosquitoes are released into the world, they still follow their natural impulse to seek out the nearest female, do the midair humpty dance, and fertilize her eggs — both sides blissfully unaware that he just passed on that same self-destructive protein. 

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The unsuspecting larval mosquito babies are dead before they hatch, and whammo-blammo, problem solved!

That's what you get, ya little plague-bringin' creep! GIF from thegatesnotes/YouTube.

So if all it takes are a couple thousand mutant mosquitoes, then what's up with this Zika virus outbreak?

ICYMI, the CDC just announced a major U.S. travel ban.

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Specifically, they're warning anyone who is carrying, or is planning to carry, a baby to stay far, far away from South America and the Caribbean, where the Zika virus has been linked to a sudden meteoric increase in microcephaly — that is, children born with abnormally small heads, which can lead to lots of other problems and can severely affect brain development.

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In the 70 years or so since the virus was first discovered in the Ugandan jungle, the number of people affected by Zika was originally pretty small — somewhere around a hundred people, ever.

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But that all changed in the last few years. And like the spread of West Nile and dengue fever before it, there is no vaccine currently available to prevent the spread of Zika — and it could take a while before anyone figures one out.

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So, in the meantime, why not eradicate the virus at its source, before it has a chance to spread?

"Who, me? What? I didn't do anything. I'm just gonna go over here now..." GIF from thegatesnotes/Youtube

As it turns out, people aren't so keen on swarms of Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes invading their communities.

After all, what happens if a female mosquito gets infected with this self-destructing protein and passes it on to a human before she dies? What happens if evolution and radical conditions eventually transform these weaponized genocidal mutant mosquitoes into, well, something worse? What kind of unforeseen damage will occur in the local ecosystem if neither of the human-biting mosquito species are present to fulfill their crucial ecological functions?

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To that last point, the answer is "almost certainly none." Yes, mosquitoes can assist in the spread of pollens, and they serve as meals for certain animals. But for the most part, they're selfish self-sustaining death machines designed to breed and kill.

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The rest of those questions, however, are totally valid.

Mosquitoes are basically the real-world equivalent of the xenomorph from "Aliens" (which is also where this GIF is from).

Unfortunately, those same concerns have also made it difficult for Oxitec to conduct the tests they would need to in order to produce satisfactory answers. The few controlled experiments they have conducted in Brazil and the Cayman Islands have both resulted in 80% reductions in the populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes in just a few months.

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While the science fiction fan in me is still terrified of the consequences, the rational human in me understands the math.

Eliminating 80% of the mosquitoes that deliver these diseases could save nearly half a million lives every year.

So what are we waiting for?

Here's a TED Talk with Oxitec founder Hadyn Parry about the real-life benefits of Sexytime Frankenstein Death Mosquitoes: