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WHO takes a position on genetically modified mosquitoes

Each year, more than 700 000 people die from vector-borne diseases (VBD) such as malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis. More than 80% of the global population lives in areas with at least one major vector-borne disease risk, and more than half are at risk of two or more. Taken together, these diseases have precise effects on economies and can disrupt both rural and urban development.

Recognizing the urgent need for new tools to combat VBDs, and in the spirit of promoting innovation, the WHO supports the investigation of all potentially beneficial technologies, including genetically modified mosquitoes (GMM). A new position statement today, at the WHO Symposium, clarifies the WHO’s stance on the evaluation and use of GMM for the control of vector borne diseases.

“Diseases are not going away”, TDR director Dr. John Reeder referred to a special program for research and training in tropical diseases, as he presented a position statement at the seminar. “We really need to think about new devices that can make an impact.”

New status 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 pathogens carrying the disease. These advances have often led to polarization debates over the benefits and risks of genetically modified mosquitoes.
According to the new WHO statement, computer simulation modeling has shown that GMM can be a valuable new tool in efforts to eradicate malaria and control diseases caused by Aedes mosquitoes. The WHO, however, stated that the use of GMM raises concerns and questions about ethics, safety, governance, affordability and cost effectiveness.

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 impacts. This underlines that any effective approach to dealing with vector borne diseases requires strong and meaningful mobilization of communities. This is particularly important for field-wide control measures such as GMM, as the risks and benefits can affect large areas of the population.

Countries and other stakeholders are encouraged to respond to the new status statement by contacting the WHO: geneticallymodifiedmosquitoes@who.int.

New guidance

Despite the increasing risk of vector borne diseases to individuals, families and societies, limited attention has been given to the ethical issues raised by VBDs. Recognizing this difference, the WHO has issued new guidance to support the National Ethical Control Program and respond to their efforts to identify the main ethical issues at stake.

The new guidance, called “ethics and vector-borne diseases”, was released today with a statement of status on GMM. Situated in a multi-disciplinary framework, the guidance emphasizes the important role of community participation in designing and implementing an appropriate, sustainable public health response.

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