Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

The best way to control dengue

The idea of preventing mosquito breeding using sterile males has been worked upon since the 1960s

Yet another season of mosquito-borne dengue and chikungunya is ravaging Delhi, and other parts of the country as well. The most effective way to control them is by eliminating vector mosquitoes that carry the offending viruses. India, though it has managed to control malaria, has not been able to contain mosquito-breeding water puddles all over its cities and urban sprawls. Attempts to clear water bodies and fumigation have been on for years, but have proved ineffective. They give the impression that something is being done by the authorities, but puddles and mosquitoes return as soon as rains come, and one needs to fumigate again and again, which is a futile exercise.

However, there is a more effective way of cutting down the mosquito population—by introducing genetically engineered sterile male mosquitoes which do not produce offspring when they mate with females, and drastically reduce the population in two seasons. This technology has been tried and tested in Malaysia, Brazil and the Caribbean.

The idea of preventing mosquito breeding using sterile males has been worked upon since the 1960s with funding from the World Health Organization, but without much success. It is only after the advent of gene-splicing technologies that it became possible to generate sterile male mosquitoes in a highly targeted fashion.

Oxford, UK-based biotech company Oxitec has received official clearance for their use in Brazil and Malaysia. The company has applied for permission to test the technology in India, but the country’s biotech regulatory body Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in the ministry of environment and forests has not cleared it even after almost two years of waiting.

It seems GEAC has not met to review any of the pending applications in years. There is complete paralysis in the body that started during the United Progressive Alliance regime, but the current National Democratic Alliance dispensation is not acting fast at all because of the opposition from the anti-tech lobby to even field-testing of genetically modified organisms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a forward-looking man who has great faith in modern science and technology for India’s development. However, his government has not been able to take a bold stand against some obstructionist and anti-biotech NGOs.

India can ill-afford not to utilize the best of science and technology for the nation’s progress. India’s public health is not at its best, and is causing huge economic losses and retarding progress. Dealing with epidemics the way India has in the past is no way to go forward. Obstacles and obstructionists must be dealt with a heavy hand.

India has excellent scientists who can deal with and manage any risk associated with these technologies. The government must send a strong message to the anti-technology lobbies to back off on their propaganda. The government must repose faith in India’s scientific community, and not be carried away by the anti-science and anti-technology campaigners. India cannot afford to waste any time to protect its public health.

Shanthu Shantharam teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University and was formerly executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology-led Enterprises. He is a former biotechnology regulator with the US department of agriculture.

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