Australia to use mosquitoes to combat dengue fever

Australian authorities will begin using the nation's own mosquito population to fight dengue fever in the coming months as part of a first-in-the-world $18 million program.

Regulatory approval is expected this week to begin releasing mosquitoes that have been infected with a bacteria that Australian researchers hope will stop dengue fever, TheAustralian.com reports.

The mosquitoes will be infected with wolbachia, a bacterium that does not harm the mosquito but displaces the dengue fever, stopping it from multiplying.

Wolbachia can be passed from mosquitoes through the generations by infected eggs. Researchers hope that this will allow the bacterium to spread gradually through the wild mosquito population.

Infected mosquito males that mate with uninfected females will result in eggs that fail to hatch. Two infected parents, however, will have eggs that grow normally, TheAustralian.com reports.

Additionally, the bacteria cannot live in humans or infect them or other animals that are fed upon by mosquitoes.

"We are very confident that it poses no risk to human safety or the environment," project leader Scott O'Neill, a professor of biology at the University of Queensland, told TheAustralian.com "In the laboratory it's working beautifully, but it's very hard to predict from that how it's going to perform in the field. We are quietly confident, but we really need to do these tests before we can confidently say it's going to work."

The trial release, funded in part by $14 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, could have a large impact on the toll taken by dengue fever, which infects between 50 million and 100 million people annually, TheAustralian.com reports.

There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for dengue fever, which can be fatal in severe cases.