Transgenic mosquitoes released in Djibouti to combat malaria | General news

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

The friendly, non-biting 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.

It is the first time mosquitoes of this type have been released in East Africa and the second time on the continent.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), similar technology has been used successfully in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and India.

More than one 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, that do not transmit diseases. And when we release these friendly mosquitoes, they seek out and mate with wild-type female mosquitoes,” Oxitec director Gray Frandsen told the BBC.

The laboratory-produced mosquitoes carry a “self-limiting” gene that prevents female mosquito offspring from surviving to adulthood when they mate.

Only their male offspring survive, but they will eventually become extinct, 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 Djibouti’s Mosquito Friendly Programme, 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 about 30 cases of malaria. Since then, malaria cases have increased exponentially in the country to 73,000 in 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 known as an urban mosquito that has circumvented traditional control methods. It bites both day and night and is resistant to chemical insecticides.

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

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

“We now see malaria patients suffering daily across Djibouti. There is an urgent need for new interventions.”

The new malaria project has been easy to implement due to 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 participated in community preparation, told the BBC.

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

But Oxitec’s Frandsen says no adverse effects on the environment or human health have been documented for more than 10 years, during which the biological solutions developer has released one 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.

The genetically modified genes are not found in mosquito saliva and, according to Oxitec, even a person who is bitten by one of them will not be exposed to the effects of the genes.

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

If successful, broader field testing and eventual operational deployment of the mosquitoes will continue into next year in the country.

Malaria is a deadly disease that kills at least 600,000 people worldwide every year. According to the World Health Organization, nine in 10 of all deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Source: BBC

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