Officials in south Florida have begun releasing swarms of sterile flies in an effort to combat a parasitic maggot that eats living tissue of warm blooded animals, and that includes humans.
The outbreak of the New World screwworm, the first to hit the U.S. in over thirty years, has already killed over a hundred key deer in the Florida Keys. State officials now fear that the blight could spread to livestock and cause millions of dollars of damage to the state’s agriculture industry. Residents are being asked to monitor their pets, while park managers have started to build quaranteen zones to keep non-infected deer to stop further population loss.
In response to the sudden infestation, the Florida Comissioner of Agriculture has declared an agricultural state of emergency across the entire Monroe County. Authorities are also working to suppress the population of the parasite by releasing sterile males in huge numbers. When these males mate with females of the species, no offspring are produced, hopefully resulting in a population crash. And with a few generations of this the short lived fly should hopefully breed itself out of existence.
The US Deptartment of Agriculture says it has been releasing more than three million sterile flies twice a week to prevent the infestation from growing any further, and have apparently carried out eighty seven releases at twenty five sites in the Keys.
The parasitic screwworm fly produces larvae maggots that eat the living tissues of warm blooded animals. When in the larval stage, the worms burrow their way into live flesh in a corkscrew like fashion, effectively eating them from the inside out. This bug can also infect humans, though cases are rare, and none have been reported during this current outbreak.
To create the sterile males, the flies are bred in vast numbers and then blasted with radiation. No genetic modifications are required. The USDA developed this technique back in the 1950s as a form of biological control. The US government spent $750 million over the course of 45 years to eliminate the troublesome fly in Louisiana, Florida, and Puerto Rico.