Each year, more than 700 000 people die from vector-borne diseases (VBDs) such as malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis, among others. More than 80% of the global population live in areas at risk of at least one major vector-borne disease, and more than half are at risk of two or more. Taken together, these diseases exact an immense toll on economies and can impede both rural and urban development.
Recognizing the urgent need for new tools to combat VBDs, and in the spirit of fostering innovation, WHO supports the investigation of all potentially beneficial technologies, including genetically-modified mosquitoes (GMMs). A new position statement, launched today in a WHO seminar, clarifies WHO’s stance on the evaluation and use of GMMs for the control of vector-borne diseases.
“These diseases are not going away,” noted Dr John Reader, Director of TDR, the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, as he presented the position statement in the seminar. “We really do need to think about new tools that could make an impact.”
New position statement
In recent years, there have been significant advances in GMM approaches aimed at suppressing mosquito populations and reducing their susceptibility to infection, as well as their ability to transmit disease-carrying pathogens. These advances have led to an often-polarized debate on the benefits and risks of genetically-modified mosquitoes.
According to the new WHO statement, computer simulation modelling has shown that GMMs could be a valuable new tool in efforts to eliminate malaria and to control diseases carried by Aedes mosquitoes. WHO cautions, however, that the use of GMMs raises concerns and questions around ethics, safety, governance, affordability and cost–effectiveness that must addressed.
The statement notes that GMM research should be conducted through a step-wise approach and supported by clear governance mechanisms to evaluate any health, environmental and ecological implications. It underscores that any effective approach to combating vector-borne diseases requires the robust and meaningful engagement of communities. This is especially important for area-wide control measures such as GMMs, as the risks and benefits may affect large segments of the population.
Countries and other stakeholders are encouraged to provide feedback on the new position statement by contacting WHO at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the growing threat of vector-borne diseases to individuals, families and societies, the ethical issues raised by VBDs have received only limited attention. Recognizing this gap, WHO has issued new guidance to support national VBD control programmes in their efforts to identify and respond to the core ethical issues at stake.
The new guidance, titled “Ethics & vector-borne diseases,” was issued today alongside the position statement on GMMs. Grounded in a multidisciplinary framework, the guidance emphasizes the critical role of community engagement in designing and implementing an appropriate, sustainable public health response.