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Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.


Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.


According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Use of abortion pill rises

Until the Lege reconvenes, anyway.


There’s been a sharp increase in the number of Texas women who are using the abortion pill to end their pregnancies now that federal officials have eased restrictions on the drug, according to officials at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Until recently, the number of women seeking medically induced abortions at Texas’ Planned Parenthood facilities had dipped to about 1 percent because of stringent guidelines put in place by state lawmakers, officials say.

That changed in late March, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed guidelinesfor women taking mifepristone, a pill geared to induce abortion early in a pregnancy.

“We have seen a fourfold increase in the number of our patients choosing medication abortion since the FDA updated its protocol,” said Sarah J. Wheat, chief external affairs officer at Planned Parenthood. “From our perspective, it’s restoring options for women.

“It’s putting decisions back in the hands of women instead of politicians at the Capitol.”

No firm numbers are available yet, but Texas researchers and abortion providers say they see the increase and hope to have better estimates in the coming months.


Planned Parenthood continues to run clinics statewide, including the Southwest Fort Worth Health Center, a privately funded $6.5 million licensed ambulatory surgical center that opened in 2013.

A medical abortion has remained an option for patients at these facilities, but fewer women have used it because Texas law required them to visit the clinic four times for it, said Daniel Grossman, an investigator with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

“In the six months after HB 2 went into effect, there was a 70 percent decline in medication abortions performed statewide,” said Grossman, who is working with researchers at the University of Texas at Austin to determine the impact of legislation on abortions. “Interviews with women … [showed they were] incredibly frustrated when they had a preference for medication abortion” and couldn’t get it.

Wheat said some women have had to travel 100 miles or more to reach a Planned Parenthood clinic, which put a hardship on them for multiple visits.

“That requirement alone created huge barriers for our patients,” she said.

Now that the FDA change has loosened restrictions in Texas — requiring a lower dose, 200 milligrams instead of 600 milligrams; fewer doctor visits; and allowing the medication up to 10 weeks in a pregnancy instead of seven weeks — more women are choosing the medical abortion option, Wheat and Grossman say.

Exact numbers won’t be available for weeks or months, but “many of the independent abortion providers who have already started using the new FDA regimen are saying their numbers are back up,” Grossman said. “Many women have a preference and prefer this.”


Now the question is whether Texas lawmakers will weigh in on the issue when they return to work in January.

Planned Parenthood officials say they hope not.

“The restrictions the Legislature put in place were not based in science,” Wheat said. “The FDA is the national expert in how medications are provided, and they approved these updates.

See here for the background. I’d laugh at the futility of hoping that science and rationality would prevail if it weren’t so painful. The best hope as I see it is for HB2 to be sufficiently gutted by the Supreme Court. That will surely only slow down the zealots, but it’s probably the best we can expect until we start electing different leaders.

FDA makes medical abortion safer

Good news, at least until the Legislature reconvenes.


Texas women will be able to obtain medical abortions later into their pregnancies under newly approved changes by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA on Wednesday announced revised rules for drug-induced abortions — a method used early in a pregnancy — that will increase the number of days women can take medication to induce abortions from 49 days of gestation to 70 days. Other revisions to the original FDA label for medication that induces abortions include a lower dosage of the drug, known as mifepristone.

First approved in 2000, mifepristone, when taken with another drug called misoprostol, is used to terminate early pregnancies.

Doctors in many states already followed common, evidence-based protocols that strayed from the FDA’s previous label for the drug, but Texas doctors were prohibited from doing so by state law. Among the provisions of the 2013 abortion law known as House Bill 2, Texas doctors were required to follow the FDA’s protocol for drug-induced abortions rather than evidence-based protocols.


Abortion providers and representatives of the medical community had long asked for an update to the FDA rules, arguing the original FDA label for mifepristone was based on outdated evidence from the 1990s.

“Today, science has prevailed where the state legislature has failed,” said Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the organization’s political arm in the state.

While the medication to end a pregnancy must still be administered in Texas by a physician, the FDA revisions also say the second drug can now be taken “at a location appropriate for the patient.” It’s unclear what that means for Texas women who under state law must take the pill in front of a doctor.

A spokesman for the Texas Medical Board, which regulates physicians, said it was “still in the process of analyzing the FDA’s updated regimen.”

Of course, plenty of women have taken matters into their own hands on this, so this is at least a small step in the direction of safety. Don’t expect the Lege to be deterred by this, of course. They will figure out a way to make this as burdensome and punitive as possible. We may get a favorable ruling from SCOTUS in the HB2 case, but this would be a separate matter that would have to be litigated all over again. So enjoy this while you can, it’s got a limited shelf life. Sorry to be such a drag. Think Progress, the Chron, the Press, Daily Kos, and the AusChron have more.

On e-cigarettes

From the Rivard Report:

After a 2011 ordinance banned indoor smoking in public places around San Antonio, some smokers were left trying to find options to leave tobacco behind. In the ensuing three years, electronic cigarettes and vaporizers have seen exponential growth around the country, with several retail outlets popping up in and around San Antonio.

Monster Vape, co-founded by Christopher Zieg, opened its doors in 2012, and in two years expanded into two more San Antonio stores and a Corpus Christi franchise.

Zieg, a former U.S. Military medic, said he knew the dangers of smoking, but had trouble quitting until he attended a concert and saw the singer vaping onstage. His personal success with quitting smoking after switching to vaping five years ago inspired him to set up shop as he finished his military service in San Antonio.

“Being a medic and seeing what e-cigs have done for me, I wanted to pass that on to other people,” Zieg said, citing a number of benefits, including a lack of tobacco smells on clothing and vehicles, better energy levels, and perhaps most importantly the fewer number of chemicals found in the fluids used in vaporizers.

The health effects of e-cigarettes are currently unknown, and some early reports have mixed news so far. The new smokes are not yet regulated by the FDA, but I strongly suspect they will come under close scrutiny. I also suspect that local governments, which have been very active in banning tobacco use in public spaces, will not wait for a final word from the FDA to act on their own.

While the federal government works out new rules for electronic users, several city governments have started the push to include electronics in existing anti-smoking ordinances. In December, an ordinance passed by New York City Council added vaporizers to the city’s smoking ordinance, treating them as tobacco products and prohibiting their use indoors. Similar ordinances have passed in Chicago, Los Angeles, and King County, Washington, which includes several cities, most notably Seattle.

Cities in Texas have followed suit, including Georgetown, Soccoro, and Frisco, which – like New York – amended previous ordinances, and San Marcos, which made a last-minute inclusion of vaporizers to its first smoking ordinance during its final reading, drawing criticism from shop owners.

“I just don’t think they did their research before making that decision,” said Sharon Teal, owner of Ahh Vapors, LLC in San Marcos. She cited studies released by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association, showing e-cigarettes to be far less harmful than cigarettes.

In cities where the jury is still out on the inclusion of electronics in smoking ordinances, several businesses have introduced their own bans shutting out vaporizers. To Zieg, this will cause vaporizer users to find other businesses where they can vape.

“If you have two coffee shops and one says ‘no’ and one says ‘yes,’ the vapers are going to go where they’re allowed to do what they love,” Zieg says.

That may be true, but it’s as likely that the non-vapers, of whom there are many more, will choose to stay away. Be that as it may, I don’t know how much this is on the radar of Texas cities yet. I admit I don’t get out much, but I think I’ve maybe seen one or two people vaping ever, whereas I still see plenty of the old-fashioned kind of smokers. On the one hand, it would probably be easy enough for most cities to simply amend their existing no-smoking ordinances to include e-cigs – at this time, I doubt there would be that much organized opposition, certainly not as much as there was when the ordinances were first passed. On the other hand, I doubt there’s much of an organized push to get those ordinances updated, either, so for now I’d say most city councils have bigger fish to fry. What do you think about this? Would you like to see Houston or your city act now on e-cigs, or maybe consider the matter later? Would you go even farther than that? Leave a comment and let us know.

There are limits to caffeination after all

No caffeinated gum for you.

Wrigley’s new caffeinated gum, Alert Energy Gum, only lasted a couple of weeks on the shelves of supermarkets, grocery stores and convenient stores after the FDA became concerned about the amount of caffeine each piece of gum offered.

With 40 milligrams of caffeine (equal to half a cup of coffee) in each piece, it’s no shock as to why the FDA was concerned, especially because we live in a world where energy drinks and coffee thrive. Although other gum companies have released their own caffeinated items, like Mentos’s Up2U Gum and Jolt’s energy gum, the FDA has become recently concerned with the amount of added caffeine in foods and drinks.

In fact, the main worry the FDA has about caffeinated beverages and foods is that most of the products are marketed to children, who shouldn’t be consuming energy drinks and coffee throughout the day. The FDA’s limit for caffeine consumed each day is 400 milligrams, the equivalent of four or five cups of coffee. This limit is set for adults, but the FDA discourages the consumption of caffeine or caffeinated items by children and youths.

Gum is an item consumed by people of all ages, so unlike alcohol, it isn’t blocked from being purchased by children or adolescents. In a statement from the FDA, Michael R. Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the agency says, “One pack of this gum is like having four cups of coffee in your pocket. Caffeine is even being added to jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds and other snacks for its stimulant effect.”

So after caffeinated Cracker Jacks, air, beer, soap, doughnuts, and potato chips, we have finally reached a bridge too far. You’ll just have to get juiced by other means. On the bright side, there’s a caffeinated toothbrush coming out soon, so the range of options continues to expand.

Cracker Jack’d

Buy me some peanuts and caffeinated Cracker Jacks

Coming soon to a store near you: Cracker Jack’D, a new twist on the popcorn candy that offers Power Bites with as much caffeine in every serving as a cup of coffee. That could mean kids could get an overdose of caffeine if they consume more than one serving at a time, warns the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit nutrition activist group based in Washington, DC.

The addition of caffeine to a growing number of snack foods comes at a time when warning bells have sounded over the hazards of caffeinated energy drinks. US Food and Drug Administration officials told the New York Times on Wednesday that they’ve received reports of 13 deaths linked to 5-Hour Energy shots over the past four years. And the agency is also investigating heart attacks attributed to Monster energy drink, including the death of a 14-year-old Maryland teen.

An excessive amount of caffeine can cause heart palipitations, increased blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, and insomnia — and kids may be particularly sensitive to the chemical’s effects.

The nutrition activist group fired off a protest letter on Wednesday to manufacturer Frito Lay and to the FDA. “Whether or not they are advertised directly to children, it is certain that young children will consume Cracker Jack’d…and sometimes consume it to excess,” wrote the Center’s director Michael Jacobson.

Besides the energy drink craze, caffeine has also been added recently to foods you’d never suspect like the low-calorie beverage Crystal Light, Sport Beans jelly beans, and MiO Liquid Water Enhancer, a flavoring that’s squirted into water.


Frito-Lay spokesperson Chris Kuechenmeister pointed out in an emailed statement that the new Cracker Jack’D Power Bites line have “two flavors that will contain coffee, a natural source of caffeine.” The company expects each 2-ounce serving to contain about 70 milligrams of caffeine, the FDA limit for a 12-ounce serving of cola.

“Cracker Jack’D is a product line specifically developed for adult consumers and will not be marketed to children,” wrote Kuechenmeister. “The package design and appearance are wholly different from Cracker Jack to ensure there is no confusion among consumers.”

Yes, I’m sure no children will ever consume this product. At the rate we’re going, it’s a matter of what isn’t caffeinated any more, not what is. Via Jezebel.

Snorting caffeine

The next frontier in caffeination: Caffeinated air.

Breathe in the buzz

U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials plan to investigate whether inhalable caffeine sold in lipstick-sized canisters is safe for consumers and if its manufacturer was right to brand it as a dietary supplement.

AeroShot went on the market late last month in Massachusetts and New York, and it’s also available in France. Consumers put one end of the canister in their mouths and breathe in, releasing a fine powder that dissolves almost instantly.

Each grey-and-yellow plastic canister contains B vitamins, plus 100 milligrams of caffeine powder, about the equivalent of the caffeine in a large cup of coffee.

AeroShot inventor, Harvard biomedical engineering professor David Edwards, says the product is safe and doesn’t contain taurine and other common additives used to enhance the caffeine effect in energy drinks.

It was bound to happen. I mean, after caffeinating beer, soap, doughnuts, and potato chips, where else was there to go?

What do they have against food?

The Lunch Tray is peeved.

The Associated Press reports that late Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved an agriculture appropriations bill which would essentially gut all of the recent, hard-won legislative victories to improve the health of Americans, especially children.

Remember how hard it was to get the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, the law that will for the first time in fifteen years meaningfully improve the nutritional quality of school food? Sorry, says the House GOP. Too costly to implement, not to mention that Representatives from potato-growing states aren’t pleased with the fact that french fries and tater tots can no longer stand in as the daily vegetable on school lunch trays.

There’s a lot more, so go take a look. I’m afraid it’s just another day at the office for the Republicans in Congress. Kos has more.