Djibouti releases GMO mosquitoes to boost malaria fight

Image source, Oxitec Company

Legend, Scientists say mosquitoes are not toxic and are not allergic to humans

  • Author, Dorcas Wangira
  • Role, Africa Health Correspondent, BBC News

Tens of thousands of genetically modified (GMO) mosquitoes have been released in Djibouti in a bid to stop the spread of an invasive species that transmits malaria.

Friendly male Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes, developed by Oxitec, a UK-based biotechnology company, carry a gene that kills female offspring before they reach maturity.

Only female mosquitoes bite and transmit malaria and other viral diseases.

This is the first time such mosquitoes have been released in East Africa and the second time on the continent.

Similar technology has been used successfully in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and India, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More than a billion of these mosquitoes have been released worldwide since 2019, according to the CDC.

The first batch of mosquitoes was released into the open on Thursday in Ambouli, a suburb of Djibouti City.

This is a pilot phase of a partnership between Oxitec Ltd, the government of Djibouti and Association Mutualis, an NGO.

“We have built good mosquitoes that do not bite, which do not transmit diseases. And when we release these friendly mosquitoes, they seek out and mate with wild female mosquitoes,” Oxitec director Gray Frandsen told the BBC.

Lab-produced mosquitoes carry a “self-limiting” gene that prevents the offspring of female mosquitoes from surviving to adulthood when they mate.

Only their male offspring survive but will eventually die, according to the scientists behind the project.

Unlike the sterile male Anopheles colluzzi mosquitoes released in Burkina Faso in 2018, the friendly stephensi mosquitoes can still have offspring.

The release is part of the Djibouti Friendly Mosquito program which was launched two years ago to stop the spread of Anopheles stephensi, an invasive species of mosquito first detected in the country in 2012.

The country was then on the verge of eliminating malaria, when it recorded nearly 30 cases of malaria. Since then, malaria cases have increased exponentially in the country, reaching 73,000 by 2020.

The species is now present in six other African countries: Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana.

The Stephensi species, native to Asia, is very difficult to control. It is also referred to as an urban mosquito that has outwitted traditional control methods. It bites day and night and is resistant to chemical insecticides.

Dr. Abdoulilah Ahmed Abdi, Djibouti’s presidential health adviser, told the Financial Times news site that the government’s goal was to “urgently reverse malaria transmission in Djibouti, which has increased in over the last decade.

“Not so long ago, malaria was extremely rare in our communities,” said Mutualis Association director Dr Bouh Abdi Khaireh.

“Today, we see malaria patients suffering daily in Djibouti. There is an urgent need for new interventions. »

It was easy to roll out the new malaria project because of the small size of Djibouti, a largely urban country of just over a million people, organizers said.

“Malaria is a serious disease that really affects our health. People are really waiting to see how these friendly mosquitoes will help us win the fight,” Saada Ismael, a malaria survivor who took part in community preparedness, told the BBC.

Image source, Oxitec company

Legend, Malaria kills more than 500,000 people in Africa every year

Genetically modified organisms have always been a controversial subject in Africa. Environmental groups and activists have warned of the consequences on ecosystems and existing food chains.

But Oxitec’s Frandsen says no negative effects on the environment or human health have been documented in more than 10 years, during which the biological solutions developer released a billion modified mosquitoes.

“Our goal is to ensure that everything we release into the environment is safe and highly effective. There is no environmental impact. They are non-toxic, non-allergenic and species specific,” he added.

Genetically modified genes are not found in mosquito saliva and, according to Oxitec, even a person bitten by a mosquito will not be exposed to the effects of these genes.

“This new solution may be controversial, but it is the future,” said presidential health adviser Dr. Abdi.

If successful, larger-scale field trials and possible operational deployment of the mosquitoes will continue until next year in the country.

Malaria is a deadly disease that kills at least 600,000 people worldwide each year. Nine out of ten deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

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Image source, Getty Images/BBC

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