More than 700,000 people die each year from vector transmitted diseases (VBD) such as malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis. More than 80% of the world’s population lives in areas where there is at least one major vector-borne disease. Taken together, these diseases take an immense toll on the economy and can hinder both rural and urban development.
WHO recognizes the urgent need for new tools to combat VBD and, in a spirit of promoting innovation, supports the study of all potentially useful technologies, including genetically modified mosquitoes (GMMs). A new statement released today at a WHO seminar highlights the WHO’s stance on the assessment and use of GMM to combat vector-borne diseases.
“These diseases don’t go away,” said Dr. John Reeder, Director of TDR, the Special Program for Research and Education in Tropical Diseases, when presenting the statement at the seminar. “We really need to think about new tools that could have an impact.”
In recent years, significant advances have been made in GMM approaches aimed at suppressing mosquito populations and reducing their susceptibility to infection and their ability to transmit disease-causing pathogens. These advances have led to an often polarized debate about the benefits and risks of genetically engineered mosquitoes.
According to the WHO statement, computer simulation modeling has shown that GMMs can be a valuable new tool in eradicating malaria and fighting diseases transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. However, the WHO warns that the use of GMM raises concerns and questions about ethics, safety, governance, affordability and cost-effectiveness that need to be addressed.
The statement indicates that GMM research should be carried out gradually and supported by clear governance mechanisms to assess any health, environmental and environmental impact. It underlines that any effective approach to fighting vector-borne diseases requires the robust and meaningful commitment of communities. This is particularly important for area-wide control measures such as GMM, as the risks and benefits can affect large parts of the population.
Countries and other stakeholders are invited to provide feedback on the new opinion by contacting WHO at: Genetically Modified Mosquitoes@who.int
Despite the growing threat to individuals, families and societies from vector-borne diseases, the ethical questions posed by vector-borne diseases have received limited attention. Recognizing this loophole, WHO has issued new guidelines to assist national VBD control programs in their efforts to identify and respond to key ethical issues.
The new guidance, entitled Ethics and Vector-borne Diseases, was released today along with the opinion on Genetically Modified Mosquitoes. The guidelines are based on a multidisciplinary framework and emphasize the critical role of community engagement in designing and implementing an appropriate, sustainable public health response.