Starting every July, citizens of Burkina Faso prepare themselves. While some prepare for a harvest or the school year to begin, many prepare for mosquitoes. Peak mosquito and peak malaria season begin in July and runs through September.
Malaria is a serious burden on the Burkinabé people. In 2015, the disease, which is treatable and preventable, was responsible for 61.5 percent of hospitalizations and 30.5 percent of deaths in Burkina Faso. That same year, malaria accounted for roughly 70 percent of deaths in children under the age of 5. In 2018, there were 11,915,816 presumed and confirmed cases of malaria. While reports say that 4,144 people died of malaria in 2018, experts estimate the true total to be above 30,000.
However, change is on the horizon. Recently, the nonprofit research group Target Malaria began testing its newest weapon against malaria: mosquitoes.
Using Mosquitoes to fight Malaria in Burkina Faso
In the small village of Bana, 10,000 genetically modified, sterile male mosquitoes, coated in fluorescent dust, were released into the wild. Although mosquitoes have been genetically modified in Brazil and the Cayman Islands, this was the first time such mosquitoes have been released in Africa, and out in the world.
This release was a long time in the making. Target Malaria, led by Abdoulaye Diabaté, began research in 2012. However, in the seven years it took to reach this point, far more was needed than just research. Diabaté and his research team also sought to bring in the community. Such an experiment was sure the bring skepticism and criticism from local tribes, so Target Malaria sought the approval of tribe leaders before letting the mosquitoes into the wild. In May 2018, all of the tribe leaders signed off on the project, giving their approval.
The overall goal of Target Malaria’s research is to develop a special gene in mosquitoes that will squash the malaria gene, effectively eradicating malaria in Burkina Faso and wherever else the mosquitoes reach.
This first release is a stress test. Over 99 percent of the mosquitoes released are sterile males, which cannot bite and pass on their genes. Scientists wanted to test how these mosquitoes fare in the wild, track their behaviors, flight patterns and flight dispersal, as well as see how the ecosystem reacts to these new mosquitoes. The mosquitoes should die within a matter of months.
The next step for Target Malaria is research and analysis. According to Diabaté, the team plans to spend the next year working with information from this stress test. Then, they will continue to develop the malaria-squashing gene, as well as continue to build community relations. The remaining scientific research component should be completed in two to three years. However, because of developing community relationships and education processes, the group expects the mosquitoes equipped with the gene to be released in six or seven years.
Because of the nature of this project, Target Malaria has not been without criticism. Environmentalists warn of the dangers of tampering with an entire species of mosquito and the possibility of unforeseen consequences. According to Diabaté, the group understands this but also highlight the tremendous possibilities if the project is successful. There are 3,500 different species of mosquito in Africa and 850 in West Africa alone. Target Malaria is attacking one species of mosquito and possibly saving thousands, if not millions of lives from malaria in Burkina Faso and the rest of Africa. For Target Malaria, the risk is worth the reward.
What is Target Malaria?
Target Malaria is a nonprofit research group that aims to develop and share technology for malaria control in Africa. The team’s vision is to create a world free of malaria. The team consists of scientists, stakeholder engagement teams, risk assessment teams and regulatory experts from Africa, Europe and North America. They operate from Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda.
Diabaté himself is a native of Burkina Faso and is familiar with malaria after suffering through it himself. His wife, children and sibling have also suffered bouts with malaria as well. Malaria in Burkina Faso is a far too common issue for his family and millions of others.
The research Target Malaria is doing has the possibility of eradicating malaria. If successful, the genetically modified mosquitoes will replace the standard bed nets and medical treatments. These mosquitoes have the potential to change the lives of millions throughout Africa.
– Andrew Edwards
Photo: Wikimedia Commons