Djibouti Launches Innovative Project to Combat Malaria with Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes

The Djibouti Friendly Mosquito Programme is a collaboration between Djibouti’s National Malaria Control Programme, the public health not-for-profit Association Mutualis, and University of Oxford founded Oxitec Ltd, a leading developer of biological solutions to control disease-transmitting pests. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary:

  • Djibouti launches a pioneering project, releasing genetically engineered mosquitoes to combat malaria. The initiative aims to reduce the population of the Anopheles stephensi mosquito, a major malaria vector. This collaborative effort involves Djibouti’s National Malaria Control Programme, non-profit Association Mutualis, and Oxitec Ltd.

Djibouti is making a bold move in the fight against malaria by releasing genetically engineered mosquitoes in a suburb as part of the Djibouti Friendly Mosquito Programme. This initiative, targeting the highly invasive Anopheles stephensi mosquito, aims to curb the dramatic rise in urban malaria cases within Djibouti’s capital and beyond. It’s a groundbreaking step, marking the first release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in East Africa and the second on the continent.

This collaborative effort involves Djibouti’s National Malaria Control Programme, the non-profit Association Mutualis, and Oxitec Ltd, a leading developer of biological solutions for disease-transmitting pests. Thousands of non-biting male mosquitoes carrying a self-limiting gene were released in Ambouli, with more releases planned in the coming weeks.

Uganda is also gearing up for a similar endeavor in partnership with Oxitec, aiming to tackle Anopheles funestus, a significant malaria transmitter in East Africa. However, the timeline for Uganda’s release remains uncertain.

While Djibouti marks the second instance of genetically modified mosquitoes on the African continent after Burkina Faso’s release in 2019, the approach differs. Djibouti’s mosquitoes are engineered to carry a self-limiting gene, preventing female offspring from reaching adulthood and thereby reducing the mosquito population over time.

This innovative technology, designed to be harmless to local ecosystems, has already demonstrated success in controlling dengue-transmitting mosquitoes in Brazil. With Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes posing a threat to millions across Africa, including Djibouti, such interventions are crucial.

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In 2012, Djibouti was on the brink of eradicating malaria, but by 2020, cases soared due to the arrival and spread of Anopheles stephensi. These urban-dwelling mosquitoes evade traditional control methods, posing a significant challenge to malaria elimination efforts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The release of genetically engineered mosquitoes in Djibouti follows thorough regulatory approval and importation processes. Extensive monitoring will accompany the initiative to assess mosquito behavior and its impact on communities.

Over two years, detailed studies and community engagements were conducted, involving health officials, community leaders, and regional experts. This collaborative effort underscores Djibouti’s commitment to combating malaria and sets a precedent for Africa.

Colonel Dr. Abdoulilah Ahmed Abdi, Health Advisor to the President of Djibouti, emphasized the nation’s determination to reverse malaria transmission rates, highlighting the pilot release’s significance.

Oxitec CEO, Grey Frandsen, stressed the urgency of modernizing malaria control methods, citing the risk posed by mosquito adaptation. Their innovative approach aims to safeguard decades of progress in the fight against malaria, offering hope to communities battling this persistent public health challenge.

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