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TUCSON, Ariz. (CBS Local) — Scientists say they’ve taken a major step toward developing a “mosquito birth control” drug to curb the spread of Zika, malaria and other diseases blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year.

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Researchers at the University of Arizona say they discovered a potential protein that exists only in female mosquitoes, which is critical for their young to hatch. When the scientists blocked the protein, the female laid eggs with defective shells causing the embryos inside to die.

The team said developing drugs that target the protein could provide a way to reduce mosquito populations without harming beneficial insects such as bees.

“It’s basically birth control because even though the mosquito doesn’t die, she won’t be able to lay viable eggs for the rest of her life,” Roger Miesfeld, head of the university’s department of chemistry and biochemistry, told the Arizona Daily Sun.

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Of all disease-transmitting insects, the mosquito is the greatest menace, according to the World Health Organization. In 2017, there were around 219 million malaria cases and an estimated 435,000 deaths worldwide, predominantly babies and young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other diseases spread by mosquitoes include Zika, Chikungunya, yellow fever, West Nile virus and dengue, which has risen 30-fold in recent decades, according to the WHO.

Miesfeld said current methods of controlling mosquitoes had been used for so long that the insects have become “resistant to a lot of the insecticides.”

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He said he hoped the discovery could lead to the development of a new generation of insecticides in five years.