Malaria is a nasty disease, caused by mosquitoes infected with parasites. If you catch malaria, you get feverish and tired. You have headaches, and vomit. If you’re unlucky you may have seizures, fall into a coma and even die.
Almost 200 million people got malaria in 2013. Somewhere between 500,000 and a million died. 90% of these people lived in Africa.
This is good news???
Yes, it is! Since 2000, malaria funding has increased nearly tenfold. From 2000 to 2015, cases of malaria in Africa dropped by 40%. Thanks to this, over 600 million cases of malaria have been avoided!
The main reason? Insecticide-treated nets. If you sleep with one of these over your bed, you’re less likely to get bitten by a mosquito.
And how are people getting these nets? The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, founded in 2002, has distributed 548 million of them. They provide about half the international funding for malaria control worldwide.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping. They’ve spent almost $2 billion to fight malaria. They’ve also contributed $1.6 billion to the Global Fund.
The war against malaria is far from won. One of the main drugs used to fight it is artemisinin. But a strain that’s resistant to artemisinin is spreading near the border of Thailand and Cambodia.
A vaccine would be great. But there’s no vaccine yet. And it’s not easy: malaria is actually caused by several different organisms. Still, stopping just a few of the main culprits would be great.
New technology can change the game. On November 23rd, something amazing happened.
A team of scientists from the University of California announced that they had gotten mosquitoes to pass on malaria resistance genes to almost all their children—not just half, as you’d normally expect!
With this method, malaria resistance could spread through the mosquito population like wildfire.
Being sensible and cautious, the scientists have not tested this method in the wild yet. They could do it in less than a year—but they’re in no rush. Said Anthony James:
It’s not going to go anywhere until the social science advances to the point where we can handle it. We’re not about to do anything foolish.
It may be good to test it on a remote island, where mosquitoes can’t fly to another place.
Gene drives are simultaneously very promising and quite scary. If we used one to spread malaria resistance among mosquitoes we could save half a million lives each year – and let poor countries spend their resources on something better.
We are gaining the power to do many things. We just need some wisdom to go along with this power. In fact, many of us have that wisdom. We just need to get better at making it prevail.
On the CRISPR method for spreading malaria resistance:
• Heidi Ledford and Ewen Callaway, ‘Gene drive’ mosquitoes engineered to fight malaria, Nature News, 23 November 2015.
For more on CRISPR:
• Sarah Zhang, Everything you need to know about CRISPR, the new tool that edits DNA, Gizmodo, 6 May 2015.
For the new discovery:
• Valentino M. Gantza, Nijole Jasinskiene, Olga Tatarenkova, Aniko Fazekas, Vanessa M. Macias, Ethan Bier and Anthony A. James, Highly efficient Cas9-mediated gene drive for population modification of the malaria vector mosquito Anopheles stephensi, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (2015).