Malaria nets used for fishing

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.

[New York Times]    Read more on the topic

African families defensive on their use of malaria nets for fishing

One of the few detailed studies on the issue of insecticide-treated mosquito nets being used for fishing showed that in several villages along Lake Tanganyika, an essential body of water shared by four East African nations, 87.2 percent of households used mosquito nets to fish. When that study was presented at a malaria conference last year, the reception, according to some of those in attendance, was decidedly cool.

“People are very defensive about this topic,” said Amy Lehman, an American physician and the founder of the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, which conducted the study. “The narrative has always been, ‘Spend $10 on a net and save a life,’ and that’s a very compelling narrative.

“But what if that net is distributed in a waterside, food-insecure area where maybe you won’t be affecting the malaria rate at all and you might actually be hurting the environment?” she said. “It’s a lose-lose. And that’s not a very neat story to tell.”

An insecticide-treated mosquito net, hung over a bed, is the front line in the battle against malaria. It’s also the perfect mosquito-killing machine.

Western governments and foundations donate the money. Big companies like BASF, Bayer and Sumitomo Chemical design the nets. They are manufactured at about $3 apiece, many in China and Vietnam, shipped in steel containers to Africa, trucked to villages by aid agencies, and handed out by local ministries of health, usually gratis. The World Health Organization says the nets are a primary reason malaria death rates in Africa have been cut in half since 2000.

But at the end of the line, in poor areas where little goes to waste, mosquito nets become many other things: soccer balls and chicken coops, bridal veils and funeral shrouds. Mosquito nets are literally part of the fabric of a community. For many uses, a secondhand net, which has less insecticide on it, will do. But for fishing, it’s different.

“New mosquito nets are the best,” said David Owich, who fishes on Lake Victoria. “No holes.” When asked where he had gotten his, he smiled. “At the hospital,” he said. “Much cheaper than a real net.” (A “real” net costs about $50, an enormous expense in a place where many people survive on a few dollars a day.)

In Mr. Owich’s world, there is no overstating the centrality of fish. His daily catch pays for school supplies and keeps the kerosene lamp lit in his mud hut. All around Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi and so many others, fish are the engine block of the economy and a de facto social security system for landless people.

For Mr. Ndefi, it is a simple, if painful, matter of choice. He knows all too well the dangers of malaria. His own toddler son, Junior, died of the disease four years ago. Mr. Ndefi hopes his family can survive future bouts of the disease. But he knows his loved ones will not last long without food.

[New York Times]