A.at 6.30am, five-year-old Osman Balama and his mother reach the state hospital in Bobo Diulaso, the second largest city in Burkina Faso. He has not been feeling well for several days, and his mother is worried she may be infected with malaria. The waiting room is already full of mothers and grandmothers with young children in their circles, all with the same tired look as Osman.
"It's raining season," said Sami Palm, head of the clinic. "It means more mosquitoes. I'm sure almost everyone here has malaria. "
Two red lines on the detection bar confirm malaria. "He should not stay in the hospital because he does not vomit and is extremely ill," says Palm. Osman is sent home with drugs – the Burkan government covers treatments for children as young as five.
About 400,000 people worldwide die of malaria each year, half of them in seven countries in Africa, including Burkina Faso. Despite progress in reducing deaths since 2000, cases are gradually increasing. "We have more problems with resistance – from the parasite, who knows how to resist the drugs and from the mosquitoes, who become less sensitive to the insects poisoning applied to the mosquito net," says Palm. "On top of that, there are many remote areas that we cannot reach."
Burkina Faso is currently undergoing a radical screening using "gene-driven" technology, which will release genetically modified mosquitoes in an effort to eradicate the disease carriers.
"We develop mosquitoes here that can only have sons. These sons will also be able to produce sons, causing the female population, the only bite pole, to shrink until the mosquito disappears, "said Musa Namungugu, head of the insect farm at the Institute de Rechche and the Science de la Sante ( IRSS), just a few kilometers from the hospital.
"To do this, we added a little bit of genetic information from the mold slime to the mosquito's DNA. That extra bit contains instructions to break down sperm cells that can produce a daughter mosquito.
Namuntugo and his team have a gene drive at their disposal that they want to use to stop genetic instructions to dilute, such as modified mosquitoes, with those who do not have the new genetic information. This uses a kind of genetic copier to breed offspring with the new trait – with the intention of wiping out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. "In this way the traits spread rapidly throughout the entire population in just a few years," Namungu said. "Such a gene-drive has never been released into nature."
The village of Bana, near Bobo-Diulaso, is where GM mosquitoes using the technology will eventually be released. The government gave the green light in June.
Bana is like many others: muddy huts around central square, without sewage system or electricity, land sprayed with drying nuts, whose harvest has just begun.
"We have two major problems here: water pollution and malaria," says starter Selsa Tehera Sanu. "I went into the woods to collect sticks and leaves from specific trees and shrubs to treat the symptoms. Now we get government mosquitoes from the government and we have drugs, but the disease continues. "Even if no one dies, the disease has a huge impact. "If you or your child get sick, then you can't work for a few days. It can cost you your whole harvest, leaving you little to eat. "
For seven years, Target Malaria, the organization behind the project – sends teams of theater performers to Bana to explain what scientists are doing in their village.
"It is very important to us that everyone in the village understands what is happening here," says Lea Pare of Target Malaria.
“Not everyone in the village can read or write, so this helps everyone understand. We need it, or they won't support the project. "
More than 100 locals toured the insect farm in Bobo-Diulaso, where scientists explained the mosquito's life cycle and answered questions.
Genetic modification is controversial, and gene-drive technology is taking it a step further. The introduction of "ordinary" GM products in agriculture has led to widespread resistance. Several countries have also banned technology.
And there are substantial remarks in Burkina Faso. "It makes us puppets from the west," said Ali Tapsoba, director of Terre & Vie, a community organization in the capital Ouagadougou. "We believe that genetic modification is never the solution. There is always a risk that the mosquitoes will mutate and we will lose the following. People in our country must learn to live more hygienically, then the malaria mosquito will disappear in a safer way. "
There are doubts in the academic world as well. Recently, entomologist Willem Tucken of Wagening asked the Volkskrant newspaper if another mosquito would not occupy the site of the extinct insect.
Namangu already knows that the work he does is not nearly enough. "In Burkina Faso there are four mosquitoes that can carry malaria and we have to deal with them all."
Genetic instruction from slime to slime only works in this type of malaria mosquito, and not in others. "They will continue to have daughters," he says.
Bart Knalls, a mosquito expert at Radbouduniversiteit in Nijmegen, says networking is far more cost-effective. "The development of mosquito genes is expensive, while the mosquito net costs nothing. I think it is more efficient to invest more money to distribute them. “
Last year, a group of about 160 social and environmental organizations called for a moratorium on the experimental use of the gene drive at a UN meeting. It failed with a narrow margin, and many African countries voted against it.
"Opponents of the gene drive should be asked to live here in Burkina Faso and see what malaria brings," Pare said. "Then they can see for themselves how much we need the solution here."
As the night falls in Bana, men arrive with mosquito nets and chase them through the air. "These are test mosquitoes, without the gene drive," Namungu says. "They have a modification that makes them sterile: without mating, no eggs are formed."
These mosquitoes serve primarily a scientific purpose. "We, for example, want to know how much mosquitoes travel. We also train people to catch and analyze mosquitoes. "
One of the attractors shone a flashlight on his net and at least 10 mosquitoes fly. The men carefully put the filled nets in the freezer. The next day the mosquitoes will be removed one by one and transported to the laboratory, where Namuntugu will check whether they are modified or not. He has great optimism about future opportunities: “The malaria mosquito is not the only mosquito that causes misery. Genetically driven, we can also make dengue, Zika and chikunga disappear. "
• A longer version of this story appeared in De Volkskrant