Science is closing in on a vaccine against malaria in Africa. Until then, families could protect themselves with old-school mosquito nets. But some folks can’t get them, while others balk at using them. Meanwhile, the search for a quick fix is prompting a return to the use of DDT.
When it comes to Africa, nothing, it seems, is as easy as it seems.
Beating malaria takes on a special urgency in Africa, where malaria not only kills nearly a million people a year, but sends so many people to sickbeds that it’s become a colossal drag on the continent’s economy.
Since the days of Hippocrates, medical researchers around the world have been looking for a way to take down this bug. Some of their approaches have been downright bizarre, and not just in ancient times.
A THOUSAND BITES?
The first successful malaria vaccination consisted of someone letting himself be bitten by 1,000 infected mosquitoes that had been bombarded with X-rays. That was in 1973.
For the record, it actually worked, although there was no word on whether the test subject subsequently scratched himself to death…
Finally, though, it looks as if the boys and girls in the lab coats have come up with something more practical.
The pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline has had a malaria vaccine in clinical trials since 2005. It’s called RTS,S, and the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine says it shows real promise.
By 2015, RTS,S may be ready for distribution across Africa. If it works — and if enough people can get access to it — the results could transform the continent. No more losing a child every 30 seconds. No more losing $12 billion in productivity every year.
Africa is standing on the threshold of a revolution in health.
But that’s four years away, you’re thinking. What do people do to protect themselves until then?
As it happens, there is a way for families to protect themselves against malaria right now. It’s an updated version of the old-school mosquito net, designed to be draped over beds.
The newest versions are treated with a powerful insect repellent. The net keeps mosquitoes off the sleeping family. The repellent keeps them off the net.
The US military uses similar repellents to treat the battle uniforms of soldiers in tropical climes. Prior to traveling to West Africa last month, I treated my clothes with one of those repellents, known as permethrin.
In the Gambia, I watched mosquitoes do U-turns in mid-air when they tried to land on my shirt. It looked as if they were bouncing off invisible walls.
Furthermore, the chemical in the nets is good for three or four years before the net needs to be re-treated or replaced.
Sounds like such a slam-dunk, does it not? Just get enough of these treated mosquito nets out to the people at risk and fend off the mosquitoes until RTS,S is ready. Then, get everybody vaccinated. Voilá! The end of malaria.
Simple, right? Not quite.
There are all sorts of groups, international health organizations and private charities, hard at work trying to get these treated nets to families across sub-Saharan Africa. But many people aren’t getting them.
Meanwhile, Sonia Shah, author of a book entitled “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years,” told the Los Angeles Times that a significant number of families receiving the nets don’t sleep under them:
“Among other design flaws, their tight mesh blocks ventilation, a serious problem in the hot, humid places where malaria roosts. Minor discomfort might be tolerable in rural African communities desperate for anti-malarial prevention. But, as medical anthropologists have consistently found, because malaria is so common in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and because the overwhelming majority of cases go away on their own, most rural Africans consider malaria a minor ailment, the way that Westerners might think of the cold or flu.
“Many rural people also believe that malaria is caused not just by mosquitoes but also by other factors such as mangoes, or hard work.
“As a result, while we see the treated nets as a lifesaving gift, they see them as a discomfort that provides only partial protection against a trivial illness. Is it any wonder that many use their nets to catch fish or as wedding veils or room dividers — all documented uses of insecticide-treated bed nets?”
You can read the entire Sonia Shah story in the Los Angeles Times here.
THE RETURN OF DDT
At the other end of this spectrum are Nigerian women who are insisting that the government provide their families with mosquito nets before they register to vote.
You can read their story on the allAfrica.com site here.
And then, you come to DDT, perhaps the most infamous of all man-made pesticides. Widespread indiscriminate use of it devastated environments all over the world, to the point that it was eventually banned, first in the United States in 1972, and eventually worldwide.
Except, that is, for limited use in insect control.
Now, there are folks in Africa and the United States advocating widespread use of DDT against malarial mosquitoes on the Mother Continent. In several African countries, people are spraying tons of annually it in their homes, the way we used to do it here in the States back in the 1950s and 60s.
At the same time, there are other countries in tropical climates that have successfully battled mosquitoes without resorting to DDT.
To say this is controversial is an understatement.
How this will all end up is anyone’s guess, but if there were any aspect of African life where we African-Americans were able to make a direct contribution, this might be it.