I was trekking through the Burmese jungles in early 2015, primarily there to help create a series of videos for a field hospital in a conflict area in Karen state, eastern Burma/Myanmar. My group and I were pushing through the winding trails for a while — we had just carried a pregnant woman who was in labor, we thought was going to die (she didn’t) and handed her off to someone who could get her across the border and into more capable medical hands. Our guides took us to a small cluster of huts, nestled next to some banana trees with large clusters of ripe bananas hanging nearby.
To our surprise, a white man was already sitting in the hut and none of us recognized him. I had been in the jungle for about a month, and either knew all the white people around or had at least known that they were coming and who they were. This guy was a complete stranger to all of us, even some of the Karen we were with.
It turns out he was there to research malaria and the mosquitoes that spread it. The doctor I was with started talking to him, and as I listened I realized that he was there because there was a world of difference on one side of the border compared to the other. You could go from the civilization of say, China or Thailand, cross the border only a few miles, and have drastically different risks and fatality rates of malaria. The only way for him to get accurate information was to cross the border himself.
It struck me then how significantly malaria can impact a group of people in rural places like the jungles of Burma — access to simple preventative medicine and measures can make such a huge difference, but in places that don’t have that kind of access, the effects can be devastating.
That is one of the reasons why the news regarding Bill Gates’ latest donation caught my eye. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced the lofty goal of eradicating malaria within a generation, if possible. Their donation has gone to support the UK company Oxitec, who aims to release “friendly mosquitos” in areas of high risks of malaria. These genetically engineered male mosquitoes will mate with the females, and all of their mosquito children would be genetically doomed to die before reaching adulthood. This is a process called “vector control” which essentially wipes out an animal to prevent the spread of a certain disease — in this case, malaria.
The mosquito species in question is Aedes aegypti, otherwise known as the yellow fever mosquito. Its females are the ones who bite, and therefore the ones who spread disease.
How this will affect current progress is unknown. $4 million is a lot of money, but in 2016 the total dollar amount of research, control and elimination totaled to $2.7 billion. However, many of these funds are spent on prevention for individual lives (preventative medication, mosquito nets, etc.), so perhaps its elimination may need new special attention. This “friendly mosquito” method has been used in the past to combat the Zika virus which has seen success. It has also been used to stave off the West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever.
Whatever happens, any dent in the mosquitoes that spread malaria would save countless lives. Not only does it kill a whole lot of people, but it is far more deadly to children under the age of 5 and pregnant women, and it has been known to perpetuate the spiral of poverty in already poverty-stricken areas.
To put it into perspective:
- In 2015, WHO estimates that 429,000 people died of malaria.
- Oxitec says that every year, these types of mosquitoes “spread diseases and parasites that kill almost 1 million people and cause debilitating illness in hundreds of millions more.”
- There were 216 million total cases across 91 countries in 2016.
- 91% of all malaria deaths occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2016.
- Approximately 2/3 of all malaria deaths occur in children under the age of 5 (303,000 African children in 2015).
- Around 50% of the entire world is at risk of diseases like malaria spread by Aedes aegypti.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.