DJIBOUTI—Djibouti has released tens of thousands of male genetically modified (GMO) mosquitoes  to limit the spread of an invading species that transmits malaria.

This is the first time such mosquitoes have been introduced in East Africa, and the second time across the continent.

This declaration was made by Oxitec CEO Grey Frandsen during an interview with the BBC, where he stated that the newly produced mosquitos do not bite or carry diseases.

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

This is the first batch of mosquitoes that has been  released into the open air in Ambouli, a suburb of Djibouti City.

The laboratory-produced, friendly, non-biting male Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes, developed by Oxitec, a UK-based biotechnology company, carry a “self-limiting” gene that kills female offspring before they reach maturity.

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

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

Similar technology has been successfully used in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama, and India. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one billion such mosquitoes have been released around the world since 2019.

The country was on the verge of eliminating malaria when it recorded close to 30 malaria cases.

Since then, malaria cases have risen exponentially to 73,000 by 2020. The species is now present in six other African countries: Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana.

The Anopheles stephensi species, originally from Asia, is very difficult to control. It is also referred to as an urban mosquito that has outsmarted traditional methods of control. It bites both during the day and at night and is resistant to chemical insecticides.

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

The small size and mostly urban nature of Djibouti, with a population of slightly over a million people, have made it easier to roll out the new anti-malaria project, according to the organizers.

According to Dr. Abdi, if this pilot is successful, larger field trials and eventual operational deployment of the mosquitoes will continue until next year in the country.

Saada Ismael, a malaria survivor who took part in the community preparation, expressed optimism about the project, noting that people are eagerly waiting to see how these friendly mosquitoes will help them fight malaria, given that only female mosquitoes bite and transmit malaria and other viral infections.

Malaria is a deadly disease that kills at least 600,000 people every year globally, with nine in ten of all deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

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