Environmentalists have opposed the plan to breed and release genetically modified mosquitoes in the country to curb malaria prevalence.
They say the act presents substantial human and environmental health risks.
Their objection follows last week’s announcement by scientists at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) that they have embarked on a series of activities aimed at breeding and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes (GMMs) that could curb malaria transmission.
Dr Edward Nector Mwavu, an ecologist at Makerere University College of Agriculture and Environment Sciences, at the weekend said: “In science, we talk about the precautionary principle. If you don’t know much about something, you shouldn’t tamper with it. The concern is that we don’t know how these modified genes will react in the organisms that feed on mosquitoes.”
He added: “The genes may cause problems or even change the genetic codes of the organisms that feed on them. We have heard about Covid-19 which is as a result of mutation.”
Fish, chicken and wild birds are some of the organisms that feed on mosquitoes, but they are also eaten by man. Other wild organisms that feed on mosquitoes include bats, frogs, and dragonflies.
The UVRI scientists explained that the GMMs will cause suppression in the population of mosquitoes that bite people thus sinking the transmission of malaria parasites.
Dr Jonathan Kayondo, the project lead at UVRI, said the suppression will be achieved by inserting a gene that will alter the ability of the mosquitoes to reproduce.
He explained that every time the GMMs mate with normal mosquitoes, the offsprings will be less fertile and thus reduce the multiplication of mosquitoes.
“Target malaria project has a novel approach that targets malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. It targets their reproduction so that they become less and stop transmitting the disease,” Dr Kayondo said.
However, Dr Mwavu, said suppressing the population could be a huge danger to the ecosystem.
“There are certain organisms we may think are not useful, but when you eliminate them you realise they are vital,” he said
Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), said: “If you introduce genetically modified organisms, you can’t know what will happen. People are worried. We don’t know much about the GMMs and we are saying, why can’t you leave mosquitoes to remain natural? And if they bite people, what will happen? We don’t approve of it.”
Unlike environmentalists, experts from Health Ministry are viewing the GMMs as a potentially important addition to the methods being used to fight malaria in the country.
Although the existing control methods such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying and drugs for treatment have helped in curbing the infections, malaria remains one of the top killer diseases in Uganda.
According to the Health Ministry, Uganda has the sixth highest number of annual deaths from malaria in Africa, as well as some of the highest reported malaria transmission rates in the world, with approximately 16 million cases reported in 2013 and over 10,500 deaths annually.
Out-of-pocket spending and work time lost due to malaria-related sickness is also high in the country because the available methods have not had significant impact on curbing the malaria burden.
“Clinically diagnosed malaria is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality, accounting for 30-50 per cent of outpatient visits at health facilities, 15-20 per cent of all hospital admissions, and up to 20 per cent of all hospital deaths,” the information on the website of the Health Ministry says.
Mr Charles Ntege, a senior adviser on entomology at the Ministry of Health Malaria Control Programme, said the fight against malaria needs fresh tools.
“We need new innovations. The gene drive method is one of the ways. It requires less funding and supervision,” he said.