Djibouti fights deadly wave of malaria with genetically modified mosquitoes

James Gathany/CDC/Handout/Reuters

An Anopheles stephensi mosquito feeds on blood from a human host.


Genetically modified mosquitoes have been released in the small East African country of Djibouti to combat a rise in malaria infections caused by an invasive vector.

The initiative, launched Thursday, comes as Djibouti, one of Africa’s smallest nations with just over a million people, faces a dramatic rise in malaria cases, which have skyrocketed from just 27 in 2012. to more than 70,000 in recent years, according to the WHO. The health agency attributes the rebound to the arrival of Anopheles stephensi, a species of invasive Asian mosquito that transmits the deadly disease.

The mosquito species has also been detected in Ethiopia and Somalia, Djibouti’s neighbors in the Horn of Africa, posing a significant regional threat.

Unlike most malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Africa that breed in rural areas, Anopheles Stephensi thrives in urban environments, intensifying the public health challenge for predominantly urban Djibouti.

“This mosquito represents an enormous threat to our fight against malaria,” said Gray Frandsen, chief executive of the American biotechnology company Oxitec, which developed the genetically modified mosquitoes released in Djibouti.

“Anopheles stephensi evades conventional tools, is resistant to insecticides and daytime bites, which reduces the effectiveness of mosquito nets,” he said.

Djibouti’s health minister, Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh, told CNN his nation was testing the new technology developed by Oxitec and believes it could be a “game changer” in reducing the spread of malaria.

“We are in the pilot phase, but we believe in the technology. “We are sure it will be a game-changer,” Abdilleh said.

Oxitec’s genetic technology, called the “mosquito-fighting” method, targets female mosquitoes, which are predominantly responsible for malaria transmission.

The technique involves releasing genetically modified male mosquitoes into the wild, which then mate with females. The introduced gene prevents female offspring from surviving to adulthood, effectively reducing the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Male mosquitoes do not bite and therefore cannot transmit malaria.

Frandsen said Oxitec’s genetic technology, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been effective in reducing other mosquito-borne viral diseases, such as dengue, in other parts of the world.

“Our technology has already been shown to reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit dengue by more than 95% in urban communities in Brazil, and we are committed to making an impact in urban communities in Djibouti and beyond,” he told CNN.

“We are still in the early stages of this program, but we are hopeful about the impact this can have in reducing the mosquitoes that spread malaria,” he added.

Although the deployment of genetically modified mosquitoes in Djibouti is only the second in Africa, the idea is attracting increasing interest on the continent.

In 2019, a team of scientists released a pioneering batch of genetically modified mosquitoes in Africa to collect data on the potency of the technique in Burkina Faso, where malaria is a leading cause of death.

According to vector control research alliance Target Malaria, mosquitoes released in the West African country were “genetically modified to be sterile, so that they can mate but cannot have offspring.”

He added that an estimated 14,850 genetically modified male mosquitoes were released and 527 were recaptured.

“After recapturing them, the researchers found that the genetically modified mosquitoes were less motile than their non-GMO siblings and had lower survival rates,” the alliance said of its findings, adding that a second phase of testing was being planned in the country. .

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced in early January that his country will partner with Oxitec. to combat malaria.

Africa bears the brunt of the global malaria burden and accounted for 96% of malaria deaths worldwide in 2021, according to the World Health Organization.