According to headlines this week, ‘the fight against malaria could be transformed by releasing into disease-ridden areas genetically modified mosquitoes that cannot transmit the infection’ – the idea being that they’ll shack up with wild ones and the gene responsible for transmitting malaria will be slowly bred out over generations.
Malaria – for those lucky enough not to need to be acquainted with it – is the world’s most dangerous disease, which makes the tiny mosquito the word’s biggest killer. It affects almost 500 million people a year and takes the lives of nearly three million – mostly in Africa, where a child is estimated to die from the disease every 30 seconds – at an estimated cost to the African economy of more than USD$ 12 billion per annum.
Critics are scepitcal that the GM mozzies (which, by the way, will glow in the dark – how useful) will have an impact – any impact – on malaria; this isn’t the first time GM mosquitoes have been trialled, the last batch – seven years ago – died because they weren’t as hardy as their bush-savvy cousins. Even the American scientists involved concede further research is required. In the meantime, nobody talks about education, nobody promotes the importance of vector control, nobody does what Dr Ronald Ross – who was responsible for confirming that is was the mosquito that transmitted malaria and how – did: encourage better drainage, for example. What’s wrong with adopting an old fashioned – and simpler – approach to a problem if it worked? Because it did: the mortality rate at the time – over a million deaths a year – was reduced to less than 10,000 during the 1950’s as a direct result of Ross’s work.
African’s cannot afford to wait while scientists develop a mosquito which may or may not affect the gene pool of wild mosquitoes and inhibit their ability to transmit the parasite. And while they’re waiting they cannot avail of new combination drugs recommended by the WHO because a course of treatment, at 3 quid 40, is too much for most pockets; local doctors still prescribe (very much cheaper) chloroquine which is known to be ineffective in over 90% of cases now due to parasite resistance to the drug.
Africa needs education. It’s not rocket science. It’s not even science. Just education applicable to African’s lives. It doesn’t need to be a perpetual guinea pig for the lofty intelligentsia of the well fed West. Sorry.
Editor in Australia did not call. I left my cell phone as close to my computer screen as possible all morning hopeful that the screen wobble would warn me of an imminent incoming call so that I could prepare by taking deep breath before picking up. (How can they say mobiles aren’t bad for brains when they make computer hardware tremble? Imagine what’s happening to the gelatinous cerebellum if something as sturdy as a computer monitor succumbs?).
Considering time difference, editor is probably fast asleep now. And I shall endure another night of insomnia in anticipation, I hope, of a call – and a commission – tomorrow.