Meet the cutting-edge scientists who are genetically modifying mosquitoes on the frontlines of the fight against one of the world’s deadliest diseases: malaria.

The Deadly Air

The Deadly Air: Genetically modified mosquitoes and the fight against malaria
Christian Jennings


Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from malaria. No one’s quite sure of the exact number. It’s just too difficult to keep track of the disease as it tears through more than 200 million cases each year, many of them in countries wracked by war and blighted by other problems. What is certain is that it is people living in these situations and, more specifically, children aged under five, who suffer disproportionately. It is for these areas that universities and NGOs, drugs companies, governments and philanthropists from around the world are united in an ongoing battle against the disease.

Malaria has been with us for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians had it; Chinese dynasties before them. One of the first treatments for the disease was quinine, brought to Europe from Peru in the mid-fifteenth century. In some arenas during the second world war, more soldiers were hospitalised by malaria than by injuries sustained during fighting. Today, malaria remains one of the most resilient and most adaptive diseases out there, constantly mutating as it finds ways around the drugs deployed to combat it.

One of the key parts of the problem is the method by which malaria transmits itself from person to person: mosquito bites. Breeding, feeding and transmitting at an incredible rate, mosquitoes are unavoidable in whatever environment they live. Now, cutting edge science is being called upon to help save lives lost to malaria. By genetically modifying the mosquitoes, scientists are aiming to turn the disease’s vector against itself, severing the link that enables malaria to spread.

In The Deadly Air, Christian Jennings mixes together his own experiences of suffering from malaria with a history of mankind’s struggle with the disease and an account of the scientists engaged in the modification of the mosquito’s genome. Rich in detail and scientific intrigue, The Deadly Air is the story of malaria and of the millions of lives at stake in our fight against it.

Cover image from a photograph by tanakawho, CC BY 2.0.

About the Author

Christian Jennings

Christian Jennings is a British freelance foreign correspondent and the author of five works of non-fiction, including Bosnia’s Million Bones, published in 2013. Since 1988, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and such areas as war crimes investigations, for publications ranging from The Economist and Reuters to Wired, The Daily Telegraph, and The Scotsman. He has been based variously in Sarajevo, Pristina, Belgrade, Kigali, Bujumbura, Skopje, Nairobi and Geneva. He now lives in Turin.


This extract is taken from the Introduction to The Deadly Air

The year 1998 seems a long time ago now: it was before 9/11, before Iraq and Afghanistan, and before crashing waves of revolution raced across the Middle East. The internet was in its infancy, Bill Clinton was US president, and American and European foreign policy was focused on the Balkans and Africa. The Bosnian war alone had left 100,000 dead, a million people displaced. By late 1998, Slobodan Milosevic’s atrocity-prone Serb forces were tearing up the human rights rule book in Kosovo, and NATO was preparing to bomb the-then southern Serbian province. Outside of Europe, it was the turn of Sudan to grab the headlines in August of that year, with an all-too-familiar African story of famine. Fifteen years of civil war between the Khartoum government and the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army had left over a million people dead, many from hunger and disease, and millions more displaced. This was in those years before Sudan became two countries, and before the atrocities of Sudanese government forces and Janjaweed militias in Darfur began to attract the use of the word ‘genocide’ from governments and human rights groups. But the death toll in 1998 was still very high in southern Sudan, from war, malnutrition and famine, cholera and arcane water-borne diseases like leishmaniasis. But one disease was killing far more than any other. Malaria.

On a massively humid August morning in 1998, one of rain squalls and arching thunder clouds, a 42-year-old Dutch nutritionist from Amsterdam in the Netherlands was working for the emergency medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Els Adams was standing in the grey mud of an emergency feeding station for famine victims. It was set up among the waving green grass, puddle swamps and thorn trees around the town of Panthau, almost lost in the thousands of square miles of southern Sudanese bush. It was so hot and humid that the air seemed to sweat. The smell around the feeding station was of the body odour of dying people, diahorrea, stagnant water and fear. Both mothers and children, in advanced stages of malnutrition, and some of whom had walked for four days to get to the feeding station, waited for emergency rations. Skeletal children with heads the size of their bodies sat naked in the mud. The over-stretched but characteristically tenacious and dedicated MSF staff struggled to push intravenous drips into them, to weigh them, to administer emergency food, to cope with a caseload of some 3,000 starving children in their feeding centre. Flies were everywhere. Egyptian vultures and crows circled overhead. At the thorn-branch gate of a tukul, or compound, a Sudanese MSF employee in a cast-off George Michael T-shirt threw rocks at the vultures that tried to land. The bodies of the children who had died overnight lay under excrement-stained rags. A priest, covered in grey dust, a string of red and blue beads around his neck, plodded among the dead and dying as the MSF nurses struggled to hold the line, to save those they could. Above them, innocuously, a thorn tree full of yellow-and-green weaver birds burst into song.

‘This is certainly the worst place I’ve ever worked,’ said Els Adams, herself a veteran of two years in wartime Angola, with Nicaragua and Peru before that.

A couple of mornings later, a party of journalists that included this author awaited departure from the area, after three days spent on the ground reporting on the conditions in the feeding station. A light aircraft was flying in from the aid air-station at Lokichokio, hundreds of miles south-east on the Kenyan border. Conditions were grim. Torrential rain had washed out the bush airstrip, making landing a mud-skidding nightmare for the Australian pilot. The MSF compound was a sea of mud, stagnant water and flooded tents. Several of their staff had malaria: unbeknown to us, four of our party of foreign correspondents already had the malaria parasite raging in our livers following days of bites from mosquitoes which we had heard were seemingly immune to the prophylaxis – chloroquine, mefloquine – we had taken. We waited to board the single-engined aircraft, standing under a thorn tree trying to keep dry from the endless, humid, grey rain. The dying children and the malnourished mothers sat glazed-eyed and resigned under the trees and in the sodden grass. With only precious minutes of power left on the batteries of our Thuraya satellite telephones, a German radio journalist put through a call to his bureau in Hamburg, kneeling in the wet mud, his face suddenly bemused.

‘What? When? This morning?’

He looked up at us, non-plussed.

‘They’re saying the American Embassy in Nairobi has been blown up. Hundreds dead.’

Then the battery power faded and the line to Germany died.

Thunderhead clouds battered the single-prop aircraft as we flew south-east 30 minutes later. Beneath us strung the endless Sudanese bush, the perspex of the aircraft cabin windows reverberating against our cheeks as we tried, fitfully, to sleep. The noise of the engine drowning out any conversation except that shouted into each others’ ears. All of us were thinking exactly the same thing: why had the US Embassy in Nairobi been attacked, by whom, and how long would it take us to get there? Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was not really high on the radars of any of the large conglomerate of international foreign correspondents then based out of Nairobi, covering, in many cases, much of sub-Saharan Africa. What I was also contemplating, as were three of my colleagues, was why we felt simultaneously light-headed, sleepy, sick and mildly disassociated with what was going on around us.

That evening, feeling even stranger and still covered in the grey mud of the Sudanese bush, I stood in front of a mountain of rubble seven storeys high in central Nairobi. The American Embassy building, which stood at the junction of two main boulevards in the city’s downtown area, had been blasted to a shell, wires, brickwork, window frames, bits of metal, twisted pipework hanging out of the gaping holes which had once been windows. But the framework of the building itself was intact. Next to it, a seven-storey building that housed a Kenyan secretarial college was not. The building had collapsed. Hundreds were feared dead.

Myself and my colleagues made notes, interviewed bystanders. An ad hoc Kenyan rescue team, all torn jeans, T-shirts spattered with brick dust, cheap loafers cut up and scratched by sharp rubble, hauled a stretcher down the tight slope of the wreckage of the destroyed building where huge concrete beams lay jilted and crushed against each other. A very dead human arm lolled out from under the blanket, its fingertips brushing the smashed grey concrete. That night, to be closer to the office, I moved into the Grand Regency Hotel in the centre of town, my head and stomach feeling feverish, slightly other-worldly. I put it down to the all-too-common food-poisoning that had accompanied four years of travel as a foreign correspondent in Africa. Unbeknown to me, Plasmodium falciparum parasites that were sub-differentiating into thousands of sub-parasites were waiting to break out from my liver into my bloodstream.

I stayed up half that night, reporting from the one-room office in the Nairobi press centre where I was working as a wire correspondent for Deutsche Presse Agentur, the German national news agency. By the morning of 8 August, I thought I had flu, or a complex tooth infection. I went to the German dentist in Nairobi we all visited who prescribed me some antibiotics and said he’d see me on a safari we were planning to the Rift Valley. The body count in al-Qaeda’s overture to the ‘war on terror’ was hitting 200 dead by the time I went to Nairobi General Hospital that afternoon. I sat in the waiting room for a time, sweating coldly, suppressing an urgent desire to faint and a desperate desire to be sick on the tiled floor. A group of whispering Kenyans sat in front of me, victims of gunshot wounds, road accidents and the brutish to-and-fro of daily African life. If they wondered why a mzungu, a white man, was sitting opposite them, sweating heavily, with yellow eyes and tanned skin that had gone the colour of old milk, they were too polite to ask. Shortly, a beefy, smiling Kenyan doctor beckoned me through. A blood test was taken. A nurse made me strong tea with three sugars. I sat in a plastic chair in the waiting room with my head between my knees, feeling sick, and feeling as though I had taken mild hallucinogenic drugs. We waited.
‘You’ve got so many malaria parasites in your blood it looks like boiling water!’ grinned the doctor 30 minutes later, holding up my test results.

Like many doctors, he enjoyed a really extreme case of anything. Three of my journalist colleagues who’d been to Sudan ended up in the same state. But we all made it. Just. I was to spend six days in a hallucinatory sweat at home, waking every two hours as our Kenyan housemaid, a trained nurse, spooned warm baked beans into my mouth. I fainted half the time I tried to get to the bathroom, which, with rampaging diahorrea and persistent vomiting, was frequently. Then the fever broke, the anti-malaria drugs won the day and I could get out of bed, almost a stone lighter. A Kenyan cameraman colleague took one look at me when I finally ventured outdoors, and exclaimed ‘Jesus! It’s Nosferatu.’

↑ Back to top


Sign up up for the Guardian Shorts mailing list

* please fill me out