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Drones are helping fight the zika virus by spreading sterilized mosquitoes

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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have conducted successful tests using drones to drop hundreds of thousands of sterile mosquitoes into parts of Brazil which have been ravaged by the zika virus.

Dropping more mosquitoes? Are they mad?

It sounds crazy, I know. The project is, however, a long-running collaboration between the IAEA, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Swiss-American non-profit, WeRobotics. This method (explained in more detail below), is a proven way of reducing mosquito populations in a given area and therefore slowing the spread of dangerous viruses.

What’s zika again? It’s been a few years since I last heard about it…

Zika virus is kind of off the international news radar as of late but was a huge deal in 2015-2016. It is spread through infected Aedes species mosquito.

While not particularly deadly – zika does have the particularly scary ability to pass from pregnant mothers to fetuses. Zika can cause babies to be born with major birth defects including severe brain damage and deformed skulls.

A baby affected by the zika virus with Microcephaly (a shrunken brain resulting in a smaller head). More than 4,000 babies have been born worldwide with this illness since 2015.

During the peak of the epidemic, South America was one of the regions hit the hardest. In Brazil in particular, thousands of babies were born with defects. Worldwide since 2015 there have been more than 225,000 confirmed cases and another 553,000 suspected cases of zika.

The aedes mosquito which carries the zika virus.

How does this drone scheme work?

The IEAEA scientists firstly expose hundreds of thousands of male mosquitoes to radiation in a lab which sterilizes them. They then carefully collect them and put them in a compartment within a drone. To protect the insects and prevent them from losing a leg or wing, they are chilled to 4-8C, putting them into a sleep-like state that keeps them stationary. Each drone can treat 20 hectares in five minutes with  weigh less than 10 kilograms and each drone can carry 50,000 sterile mosquitoes per flight. They release the mosquitoes over a wide area at predetermined intervals.

Sterile males who mate with females do not produce any offspring. As such, after a certain period of time, the mosquito population in a given area can dramatically drop. At around $12,000 USD per drone, this initiative is a cost-effective way for governments to take on a serious problem that has caused significant pain and suffering in many parts of the planet.

Let’s hope this scheme, as well as other initiatives are completely successful and ridding the world of this terrible illness.

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