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MIT Alumni suggest Exit Strategies for Malaria Suppression in Africa

June 12, 2014 - 11:42 -- William Jobin

MIT ALUMNI SUGGEST MALARIA ELIMINATION STRATEGIES FOR AFRICA

7 JUNE 2014

At a Reunion of the Class of 1959 in June 2014 under the Great Dome of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, several suggestions were developed for an Exit Strategy from the fight against malaria in Africa. Malaria currently kills about a million Africans per year, mostly children who succumb to the extreme fevers transmitted by night-biting mosquitoes.

After hearing an outline from William Jobin, a 1959 graduate of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Depart of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the current struggle against malaria in Africa, several clever ideas were proposed by the 100 or so alumni attending the reunion. The gathering was part of a program called Community of Interested Persons, organized by Walt Humann. Humann also introduced other speakers from the Class of 1959 who made their own intriguing proposals to the assembled graduates and spouses.

Jobin explained the need for an Exit Strategy in the fight against malaria which currently costs close to a billion dollars a year. Jobin helped the US start their Malaria Initiative in Africa in 2005, begining in Angola on the southwest coast of Africa. The US government has steadily increased the funding for the Malaria Initiative, at present spending over $700 million per year to protect about 400 million people in 19 African countries. Unfortunately the temporary methods used in the strategy require repeated application with increasing costs; recently the per capita cost of the US Malaria Initiative jumped threefold - a bad sign.

The last global malaria program crashed after 10 years in 1970 because of resistance to insecticides developed by the mosquitoes, and resistance to drugs developed by the malaria blood parasite. The current Malaria Initiative – in its ninth year - is now experiencing the same problems as the 1970 program, as the mosquitoes and the parasite develop resistance. Jobin thus declared an urgent need to find a way to successfully exit the current strategy - before it collapses.

Presenting a historical analysis of the countries where malaria has been suppressed and then eliminated, Jobin showed that the provision of affordable and reliable electricity was always a precursor to the disappearance of malaria. He gave examples from the Tennessee Valley of the southern USA, from the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico, from Egypt, Turkmenistan and Mauritius. In each of these places, construction of hydroelectric dams, with a national grid to connect rural homes, made it possible for people to close up their homes and sleep comfortably at night under electric fans, even during the hot and humid malaria season. In addition, the circulation of air in the bedrooms disoriented the mosquitoes which need to “smell” their human prey. Entomologists have defined a Stinky Feet Factor which the mosquitoes follow to find the sleeping person, and thus find another blood meal. As the mosquitoes travel from one sleeper to another, they also pass on the malaria parasite, thus transmitting the disease.

Jobin pointed out that in many countries, from Angola to Zimbabwe, only a small percentage of homes are on the electric grid. He asked for clever ideas on how to protect the remaining and large majority of the homes which were off the grid.

Several people raised the point that it would help if we could define the amount of air movement required to allow people to sleep comfortably, and also the amount of air movement needed to break up the Stinky Feet gradient. This would certainly make interesting research for entomologists.

He received several suggestions from the assembled alumni.

1. Solar powered fans on ceiling - with batteries to store the electricity such as motorbike batteries which are widely available in Africa.
2. Scented soap to wash those Stinky Feet every night, and thus confuse the mosquitoes.
3. New technology for storing electrical energy in Super Capacitors.
4. Clever arrangement of windows in the sleeping quarters to maximize passive circulation of air and cross-ventilation.

Plans were made at the dinner following the meeting, to further develop the ideas.