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Reading Day: Crowdsourcing HIV, Bioengineering Mosquitoes, and the G20 Summit

Ehrmann's Crew K part II DDC_1919


This week, UNAIDS has launched a new project to work with young people for a youth-centered HIV strategy.  Scientists are moving into the next stages of deploying genetically-modified mosquitoes to combat insect-borne diseases like dengue, and concerns about the risks of bioengineering have been raised.  The G-20 Summit in Cannes could not get out from under the European Union debt crisis and worldwide economic downturn, even as proposals for a tax to support development aid  brought out the “big guns” of development and global health.




Crowdsourcing HIV/AIDS Strategies: UNAIDS has launched a new platform for crowdsourcing ideas for a youth strategy on HIV over the next two months.  Using Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, CrowdOutAIDS hopes to bring together young people aged 15-29  to create a youth-centered approach to the disease.  I’ve written about crowdsourcing before, a theory of innovation that solicits opinions and ideas from experts and amateurs to create projects, programs, and other products.  In this instance, crowdsourcing will allow young people to have a voice in shaping HIV/AIDS policy at the UN level.  Their Western and Central Europe/North America Facebook page asks for perspectives on how the UN, NGOs, and various agencies have succeeded and failed in involving young people in their activities and strategies.  The project is in its first stage (of four), and it’s still pretty nebulous where it will go from gathering feedback to an actual plan.  The idea–giving agency to young people so that they can tailor approaches to HIV/AIDS to fit their demographic–is a good one.  Engaging youth in the forums where they most often connect also demonstrates a better understanding of how to converse with and spur innovations from young people.  This could be an important milestone on the way to increased prevention.  It will require more definition and a strong hand to do more than just generate conversation, however.  I’m awaiting further developments on CrowdOutAIDS before passing judgment, but I am excited to see that such a prominent global body does want to work with young people to combat HIV.

Concerns About Genetically Modified Mosquitoes: A few weeks ago, I wrote about scientific studies that are using genetically modified mosquitoes to curb malaria.  It turns out that bioengineering companies are moving faster on the insect front than I thought, this time to combat dengue fever, which has seen a resurgence in the US state of Florida and other tropical climes.  The New York Times has the story.  A study published last week in Nature Biotechnology discusses the first release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands in 2009.  There have been wider releases in the same spot and in Brazil and Malaysia since then.  Other bioengineering projects to curb insect populations have focused on agricultural pests, such as the pink bollworm, which consumes cotton crops, and Mediterranean fruit flies.  Although the Times article does not go into specifics about the possible negative outcomes of genetic modification of a species, it does note that critics are concerned that the biotechnology company Oxitec, which is responsible for developing the dengue fever-fighting insects, has pushed into implementation without enough review or public consultation, all the while operating in countries with too little regulation.  As I wrote when discussing mosquitoes engineered to combat malaria, I am concerned that these biotech companies might move too quickly without understanding the effects genetic modification may have on an ecosystem, just as DDT was considered a harmless lightning-in-a-bottle insecticide solution (with huge profits to be had) before it was discovered that it caused massive environmental and health problems.  Genetic modification of crop-damaging and disease-carrying insects could be, as one US official in the Times article points out, “a more ecologically friendly way to control mosquitoes than spraying insecticides,” but it could also trigger problems that cannot not be anticipated without careful, controlled study.

Failure of the G-2o Summit: The Group of 20 industrialized nations met in Cannes, France, this week.  The summit, overshadowed by the Eurozone crisis, financial instability in Greece and Italy, and the economic recession, put off most action not connected to these issues until the next meeting in February.  There was some hope in the development and global health communities that this November meeting could install a financial transactions tax (FTT, or “Robin Hood” tax), a portion of which could provide a more stable funding source for global health and development initiatives.  Doctors Without Borders (MSF) published a report (PDF) and press release calling for a percentage of any FTT to be allocated for global health programs, citing the success of successful but underfunded medical interventions that are already underway.  Referring to state financial support of struggling corporations, Sharonann Lynch, the MSF Policy Advisor for HIV/AIDS, said, “It is time that global health got its bailout.”  A Voice of America article put the estimated revenue from an FTT at $75 billion per year.  Bill Gates addressed the G-20 on Thursday and also called for an FTT earmarked for development aid, to no avail.  This is a logical way to bring financial stability to development and global health efforts, but it comes at a terrible time.  Any hope that development and global health leaders may have had for this initiative was wholly unrealistic, given the sorry state of the European Union, United States, and other nations, the possibility of a resurgent economic crisis, and a widespread distaste for further increases to development and health aid.  It’s an unfortunate truth, and one that will most certainly cost lives and reverse the successes of global health interventions over the last decade.


Header photo by Abode of Chaos, CC BY 2.0



Julia Robinson
Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.