Mosquito nets: so simple, yet unused in Africa

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The Independent Online

With debt-strapped African economies straining under the weight of resurgent malaria crises, the continent's leaders were urged yesterday to turn to an old fashioned remedy: the mosquito net.

With debt-strapped African economies straining under the weight of resurgent malaria crises, the continent's leaders were urged yesterday to turn to an old fashioned remedy: the mosquito net.

Fewer than 2 per cent of African children sleep under a net. Yet malaria kills almost a million people each year, nearly 90 per cent of whom are African children. The disease causes serious illness in a further 300 million to 500 million people every year.

African leaders who gathered yesterday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to co-ordinate their efforts to tackle the disease was told that the scourge has drained the continent's economy by as much as $100bn (£62.5bn) over the past 30 years.

The Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, used the meeting to demand debt cancellation. "We have reached a stage now whereby the small amounts we could have allocated to combating malaria and improving our health care are being used to service our debt," Mr Obasanjo said.

But amid growing evidence that malaria is rapidly evolving to become resistant to the available drugs, African governments are being advised to look instead to the cheaper option of providing insecticide-treated bed netting to millions of people. The mosquito net drive is a key plank of a World Health Organisation-devised campaign to halve the numbers of deaths from malaria over the next 10 years, backed by the Abuja summit.

The benefits of the mosquito net or insecticide-treated top sheet, are proven, yet are virtually unknown in the African culture. WHO studies show that even when African households want nets, they cannot get hold of them or the sprays for retreating them. Where the nets are available, high import tariffs often make them unaffordable.

The Tanzanian example isbeing hailed as a model. In the past year, the Dar es Salaam government has improved access to affordable nets, and distributed dip-it-yourself insecticide kits. Road shows and traditional song and dance are used to raise awareness of the nets and the kits which are sold, rather than given away, to encourage people to value them. They are also distributed through shops and street hawkers rather than hospitals.

Results are encouraging: the number of people buying nets has doubled in the year the campaign has been running.

Kenya, too, is a major challenge for aid agencies and health authorities. Over than 70 per cent of the population is vulnerable to malaria but there is no culture of bed-net use and supply is disastrously low. One aid scheme backed by the British Government has organised communities into sewing and selling nets. As a bonus, community-based manufacturing industries have sprouted, which in turn provide jobs.

A study released at the Abuja conference, meanwhile, reveals that the economic burden of the killer parasite is much higher than previously thought. The disease is, in effect, trapping many poor nations in their poverty. "It's absolutely shocking," said the author of the study, Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Harvard's Centre for International Development.

The summit was expected to declare 25 April annual Africa Malaria Day and to call on Western governments to intensify research into a vaccine.

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