Net results: Study suggests key to fighting malaria could be more strategic use of mosquito nets

Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2015

Malaria continues to be one of the world's most deadly diseases, killing hundreds of thousands of people each year, many of them children. Recently, efforts to control malaria-transmitting mosquitoes have helped reduce mortality from the disease, especially through the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets. Billions of dollars are donated globally to deliver such nets to countries at risk. However, a new study from the University of Ottawa published in Malaria Journal found that mosquito nets were not getting to the places where mosquitos are more likely to transmit the disease.

The study, led by Emily Acheson for the completion of her master's degree in the Department of Biology, found that there are gaps in mosquito net coverage that might contribute to the high death toll due to malaria. In fact, the research demonstrated that the areas where mosquito nets were least available were often those where the concentration of mosquito habitats is the greatest.

Acheson worked with Andrew Plowright, a student in the Department of Geography, and their supervisor, Professor Jeremy Kerr of the Department of Biology, to focus their study on Tanzania. They conducted a review of over 400 papers and collected every mosquito observation they could find for this country. They then used these records to build a habitat suitability model and correlated this with data from the Demographic and Health Surveys for mosquito net ownership across the country. This allowed the team to create a map that layered mosquito net ownership over mosquito habitat areas, from which they drew their conclusions.

“The study helps us zero in on where the nets are missing people across a country. If we can improve how the nets are being distributed, we can maximize the number of lives saved from malaria,” states Professor Kerr.

Canadians have donated millions of dollars to provide insecticide-treated mosquito nets to countries in Africa and elsewhere around the world through various initiatives, including the Spread the Net campaign led by Rick Mercer. The University of Ottawa, where this study was conducted, won the Spread the Net Student Challenge in 2009-2010. “Generous donations like these are made every year but, once the nets are delivered abroad, there has never been any way of knowing if they are targeting the most at-risk households,” explains Acheson.

She states that this type of work shows where the gaps appear largest and where just a little additional effort could make life-saving differences in communities worldwide. “We need to expand this work for it to become a global analysis of gaps in mosquito net coverage,” concludes Acheson.

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Danika Gagnon
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University of Ottawa
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