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Cholera hinders distribution of anti-insect blankets

Children try out an insecticide-treated blanket to help prevent malaria that is sponsored by United Methodist-related Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
A UMNS photo courtesy of
Margaret Tagwira. 
By Linda Green*
Feb. 5, 2009 | MUTARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS)

An insecticide-treated blanket could be another weapon in the arsenal of health organizations for fighting malaria in Africa.

But a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe is slowing research and testing of the blanket’s effectiveness, according to the coordinator of Africa University’s blanket initiative.

The faculty of health sciences at the United Methodist-related school, working Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health organizations, began preliminary research on an insect shield blanket in 2008, but the cholera epidemic -- along with collapse of the medical infrastructure -- has affected the process.

“We do not know if we are going to meet our timelines because it is the same professionals who will have to assist us,” said Dr. R. Abigail Kangwende, a public health specialist and coordinator of Africa University’s insect blanket initiative. The professionals who are dealing with the cholera epidemic are also needed to participate in research and studies about the effectiveness of the blanket against mosquitoes, she said.

Cholera is a bacterial infection, generally spread through water or food, that causes vomiting and diarrhea. In severe cases, people can die from a loss of fluids within hours unless they are treated. In Zimbabwe, the disease has killed 3,229 people and infected 62,909 others, making it the deadliest outbreak in Africa in 15 years, according to the World Health Organization.

Since Africa University focuses on improving the quality of life for the people of Africa, “we do have a role to play in educating communities who should not perish because of lack of knowledge,” Kangwende said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has also launched a targeted course of action in response to the dire humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe that addresses the need for food, health care and clean water.

“Cholera is a management problem and resources are needed,” Kangwende said. Medical personnel could help by educating the public on preventive methods. Hand-washing, good hygiene and adequate resources, like water, will help staunch the spread, she said.

St. Jude partnership

Based in a building dubbed the Africa University-St. Jude House, Kangwende, a medical practitioner for the past 20 years, has a relationship with the university that is constantly evolving. She, along with Dr. Tendai P. Manyeza, the university’s physician, were part of a medical exchange with St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Health care workers from the university, the city of Mutare and other areas of Zimbabwe participated in a fellowship program at the hospital, working on international research for infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS.

Building on the relationships fostered there, Kangwende was tapped to help the hospital, Africa University and the faculty of health sciences advance a proposed HIV/AIDS vaccine and clinical trial. The Africa University-St. Jude Project was born and an infrastructure created with offices in downtown Mutare to work with volunteers from the public.

Before the HIV/AIDS vaccine and clinical trials could get under way, problems with a similar clinical trial in a neighboring country derailed the project. “It has actually been suspended indefinitely,” Kangwende said.

The project’s mission has been modified “to get involved or embark in any research that is concerning any priority health problems that affect Zimbabwe, Africa and the rest of the world,” she said. The program’s name, she said, will change to something more generic, possibly the Africa University Clinical Research Program.

The project received new life when Africa University, through its development committee, partnered with United Converting Co. LLC of Silver Spring, Md., in 2008 to distribute insect shield blankets to regions of Africa in the fight against malaria and other insect-borne illnesses.

More tests required

Although the lightweight, polyester blanket was tested in the United States and deemed ready, it must undergo Zimbabwe’s registration, endorsement and licensing processes, as well as pass testing by government agencies, including the Ministry of Health.

Malaria has no cure and often maims or kills its victims. Every 30 seconds, a child in Africa under the age of 5 dies from malaria, according to the U.N. Foundation.

A mother carries her baby wrapped
in the blanket. A UMNS photo courtesy
of Margaret Tagwira. 

“There are people here where it is so severe that it has caused cerebral memory loss,” Kangwende explained. “There are people that have been mentally disturbed if they did not die. The biggest tragedy is that it kills and within a very short time,” she said.

“Our aim is to market the blanket…not only in Zimbabwe, but in Africa, and be in line with the mission of Africa University to go pan-African and improve the quality of life for the people of Africa,” Kangwende declared. The project partners are working with the World Health Organization to distribute the blankets across the continent.

The World Health Organization has a protection rate of 95 percent for repellants and other insect-fighting products. “Our blanket was found to have a rate of 99.3 percent,” Kangwende pointed out. At the same time, modality tests for a product to be acceptable would have to kill at least 80 percent of the insects. “Our blanket test was 100 percent. It killed all of them.”

So why is further testing necessary?

Kangwende said current test results are from laboratory-bred mosquitoes. “Our product is not going to be used for lab mosquitoes. Our product is meant to have long-term impact and be used with wild mosquitoes out there in the community.” The university is working with the government’s health ministry to test the blanket in different areas.

People think that the mosquito that makes noise is a cause for concern, but Kangwende explained that the malaria-causing mosquitoes in Zimbabwe do not buzz. “Those are nuisance mosquitoes,” she said.

When the testing processes are completed, 4,000 blankets are already at the project office waiting for distribution to families with children under age 5 and pregnant women.

Global health campaign

Global health is one of four areas of emphasis for The United Methodist Church, and Kangwende believes the blanket has a role to play. Even in temperate climates where malaria is not as prevalent, the blanket could be a safeguard against other insect-borne diseases, such as yellow fever. “We see this as responding right into the call of global health. We will see its effect on malaria when we begin to go pan-African.”

Dr. R. Abigail Kangwende says a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe is slowing
research on the insect blanket.
A UMNS photo by Linda Green. 

The United Methodist Church is “extremely concerned” about global health, said West Virginia Bishop Ernest Lyght, chairperson of Africa University’s Development Committee. “We believe that malaria can ultimately be stamped out.” He noted that Africa University’s board of directors is “excited about this endeavor and the partnerships we have utilizing the blanket.”

Kangwende sees the blanket as a complement to the popular Nothing But Nets program of the U.N. Foundation, The United Methodist Church and other global partners. “It (the net) has its place, but there are deficits, which we feel the blanket will meet,” she said.

Nets require a bed and a place for hanging, and a large number of people sleep on the floor, she explained. Many people live in homes where rooms serve multiple purposes, “and it makes it challenging using the mosquito net.”

The blanket, emblazoned with Africa University’s logo and costing around $11, was made to be as light as possible. When it is time to distribute, the university, which will act as a clearinghouse for the blankets, would need donations “to get the preventive tool to as many of the populations of Africa as possible,” Kangwende said.

“We know the need is there. The niche is there. Malaria is going to be there for a long time. We just need the vehicles to get it to them—to the people.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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