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As Zika Fears Spread, Might Pesticide Cure be the Cause?

As WHO backs GMO mosquitoes to fight virus, one Brazilian state suspends use of larvicide after claims the chemical could be behind the rise of birth defect

(Photo: coniferconfier/flickr/cc)

As researchers continue to probe the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a condition causing babies in Latin America to be born with damaged brains and abnormally small heads, a debate is raging in Brazil and beyond over potential causes of—and responses to—the health crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is backing trials of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes that could be used in the fight against the Zika virus, while also floating the idea of releasing male mosquitoes that have been sterilized by low doses of radiation to mate with wild females.

According to the BBC on Tuesday, the WHO also said "large-scale trials" would be carried out on the use of Wolbachia bacteria, which do not infect humans but prevent the eggs of infected female mosquitoes from hatching.

As Suffolk University sociology professor Susan Sered wrote last week, "[r]esponses to news of the Zika virus are, for the most part, well-intended, yet raise additional concerns." Indeed, GM mosquitoes have been dismissed by environmentalists as "a science experiment run amok." 

There's something in the air...

Meanwhile, responding to a controversial claim that the chemical pyriproxyfen, which is used to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito, could be associated with the surge in babies born with microcephaly, Brazil's southernmost state halted the use of the larvicide.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the decision, which drew criticism from Brazilian and U.S. officials,

...came just days after the Argentine group Red Universitária de Ambiente y Salud (University Network of Environment and Health), released a report that links the pesticide to the huge increase in Brazil in recent months of suspected cases of microcephaly, in which infants are born with shrunken heads and underdeveloped brains.

Medardo Ávila Vazquez, a pediatrician and neonatal development specialist at the Universidad de Córdoba who belongs to the group, acknowledged that the group hasn’t done any lab studies or epidemiological research to support its assertions, but it argues that using larvicides may cause human deformities.

What's more, Vazquez argued in an interview with the Argentinian news channel Cba24n, chemical use masks a bigger problem: "Mosquito breeding is supported by environmental degradation, which is much more intense in poor and marginalized populations in Brazil, Argentina, and throughout Latin America. Climate change, floods, widespread pesticide that killed biodiversity use, allowed the proliferation of mosquitoes by generating ecological niches in which they advanced."

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