Insecticide-treated mosquito nets are widely considered a magic bullet against malaria—one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stop a disease that kills at least half a million Africans each year. But Mwewa Ndefi in Zambia and countless others are not using their mosquito nets as global health experts have intended.
Nobody in his hut, including his seven children, sleeps under a net at night. Instead, Mr. Ndefi has taken his family’s supply of anti-malaria nets and sewn them together into a gigantic sieve that he uses to drag the bottom of the swamp ponds, sweeping up all sorts of life: baby catfish, banded tilapia, tiny mouthbrooders, orange fish eggs, water bugs and the occasional green frog.
“I know it’s not right,” Mr. Ndefi said, “but without these nets, we wouldn’t eat.”
Across Africa, from the mud flats of Nigeria to the coral reefs off Mozambique, mosquito-net fishing is a growing problem, an unintended consequence of one of the biggest and most celebrated public health campaigns in recent years.
The nets have helped save millions of lives, but scientists worry about the collateral damage: Africa’s fish. Many of these insecticide-treated nets are dragged through the same lakes and rivers people drink from, raising concerns about toxins. One of the most common insecticides used by the mosquito net industry is permethrin, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency says is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when consumed orally. The E.P.A. also says permethrin is “highly toxic” to fish.
Congolese officials have snatched and burned the nets, and in August, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, threatened to jail anyone fishing with a mosquito net.
Though experts say that the vast majority of mosquito nets are used exactly the way they were intended—hung over beds—the full extent of mosquito-net fishing is unknown. “No one is going to come forward in a survey and say, ‘That thing you’re giving me, we’re not using it properly,’ “said Seth Faison, a spokesman for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has financed the purchase of 450 million nets.
Mr. Faison and several other public health officials maintained that mosquito-net fishing was “anecdotal.” “In regards to what we face,” Mr. Faison said, “it’s an infinitesimal problem, maybe 1 percent.”
But that would still amount to millions of nets.
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