By: Anthony Dinglasan
Imagine that you and your family travel back to Nigeria to visit your hometown. During your stay in Lagos, you spend weeks visiting your distant family and friends. At the start of the new year, you return to your home in Indiana. At first, everything seems normal until your children suddenly begin to report headaches and fever. A few weeks pass and now you are anxiously waiting outside an operation room in Chicago. As a result of your trip, your children are diagnosed with malaria.
What is Malaria?
Sadly, this story is not fictional. In 2005, Fatai and Hanifat Adisa struggled through this exact scenario. Thankfully, all their children recovered from their illnesses with proper medical treatment. Though not as common in developed countries, malaria still poses a threat to many tropical areas of the world such as South Africa. Fortunately, most infections are passed by infected female mosquitos and not by person-to-person. If treated properly and promptly, malaria can remain a simple fever. On the other hand, if left untreated, malaria can cause severe symptoms like comas, seizures, and even death.
Fortunately, malaria is curable. In recent years, scientists have been able to create a diverse number of anti-malarial drugs. However, even though we already have solutions, some scientists have challenged themselves to rid of malaria completely.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
As a preface, only females can spread the disease, as males only eat nectar. To combat the spread of malaria, companies like Oxitec are making modified mosquitos. In essence, they will carry a protein that prevents female offspring when they mate. Thus, the female mosquito population will slowly become obsolete – removing all future malaria carriers. Oxitec plans to release 25,000,000 engineered male mosquitoes into the wild between 2021 and 2022.
Though Oxitec will be the first to commercialize this strategy, this method has already been done in Brazil. Eva Buckner of the University of Florida reported that Brazil has experienced a “95% reduction in the local… mosquito population.” As you can see, this strategy does work. We may have the cure, but malaria still claims about 400,000 lives per year – making modified mosquitoes the solution we did not know we needed.