A pleasant smelling herbal oil might be the next weapon in the fight against the mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
Researchers at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center are working on new technology that uses lemongrass oil to kill mosquito larvae, according to an article written for UNM Newsbeat by John Arnold.
“This is a truly low-cost, low-tech approach, but it works remarkably well,” Ravi Durvasula, MD, an infectious diseases researcher at the UNM School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health, said in the article. “We’re not targeting the virus. We’re after the carrier, and we want to get it at the early stage. You kill the larvae, you don’t have mosquitoes flying around.”
The oil, which is used for cooking and has a citrus fragrance, is extremely deadly at very low concentrations to the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue, chikungunya and other tropical diseases, according to the story. The Zika virus has been linked to thousands of reported cases of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil, which prompted the World Health Organization to declare a global public health emergency. The virus also has been linked to an increased number of cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, according to the WHO.
On Jan. 15, the CDC issued a travel warning advising pregnant women or women who may become pregnant to avoid travel to areas where the Zika virus is actively spreading. At the time, the warning included 14 countries and territories in Central and South America and the Caribbean. As of Feb. 18, the CDC listed active outbreaks in 28 countries and territories in the Americas, along with five areas in Africa and Pacific islands.
“The big problem is water,” Durvasula said in the Newsbeat article. “In big cities in many parts of the world, especially the developing world, there are big cisterns that store water. There’s standing water in tires and puddles. They are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.”
According to the article, the research team is using a patent-pending heating process to put the lemongrass oil inside cells of baker’s yeast, which is a favorite food for mosquito larvae. When these tiny lemongrass “bombs” are placed in water, the yeast contains the lemongrass oil so it doesn’t leak. The larvae eat the yeast, and their gut enzymes release the fatal lemongrass oil, according to the article.
The researchers found a significant number of the larvae die within 24 to 48 hours. They get 100% mortality within a week in the lab, the article noted. The team still needs to test their lemongrass oil technology in real-world settings, but they hope to see positive results.
“In a lot of places they actually put pesticides into the water,” Durvasula said in the article. “The problem is, that’s a chemical that goes into the water supply. And many poor places can’t afford pesticides. Lemongrass oil is dirt cheap.”
According to the article, it is nearly impossible for mosquitoes to develop a resistance to the lemongrass oil, because it attacks the larvae’s respiratory, nervous, digestive, endocrine and respiratory systems.
“We call them the five fingers of death,” UNM’s Scott Matthews, MD, said in the article. Matthews developed a simple process, which involves a couple of hours of training, for incubating yeast cells with essential oils.
“We wanted to make it the kind of thing where people wouldn’t have to rely on outside support,” Matthews said in the article. “People need to be able to pick up the ball and run with it.”
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Photo courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.