Mis-Use of Insecticide Treated Nets May Actually Be Rational

People have sometimes question whether insecticide treated nets (ITNs) provided for free are valued by the recipients. Although this is not usually a specific question in surveys, researchers found in a review of 14 national household surveys that free nets received through a campaign were six times more likely to be given away than nets obtained through other avenues such as routine health care or purchased from shops.

Giving nets away to other potential users, not hanging nets or not sleeping under nets at least imply that the nets could potentially be used for their intended purpose. What concerns many is that nets may be used for unintended and inappropriate reasons. Often the evidence is anecdotal, but photos from Nigeria and Burkina Faso shown here document cases where nets were found to cover kiosks, make football goalposts, protect vegetable seedlings and fence in livestock.

Newspapers tend to quote horrified health or academic staff when reporting this, such as this statement from Mozambique, “The nets go straight out of the bag into the sea.”  The Times said that net misuse squandered money and lives when they observed that “Malaria nets distributed by the Global Fund have ended up being used for fishing, protecting livestock and to make wedding dresses.”

Two years ago the New York Times reported that, “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.”5 Not only were people not being protected from malaria, but the pesticide in these ‘fishing nets’ was causing environmental damage. The article explains that the problem of such misuse may be small, but that survey respondents are very unlikely to admit to alternative uses to interviewers.

Similarly El Pais website featured an article on malaria in Angola this year with a striking lead photo of children fishing in the marshes near their village in Cubal with a LLIN. A video from the New York Times frames this problem in a stark choice: sleep under the nets to prevent malaria or them it to catch fish and prevent starvation.[v]

More recently, researchers who examined net use data from Kenya and Vanuatu found that alternative LLIN use is likely to emerge in impoverished populations where these practices had economic benefits like alternative ITN uses sewing bednets together to create larger fishing nets, drying fish on nets spread along the beach, seedling crop protection, and granary protection. The authors raise the question whether such uses are in fact rational from the perspective of poor people.

An important fact is that not all ovserved ‘mis-use’ of nets is really inappropriate use. A qualitative study in the Kilifi area of coastal Kenya demonstrated local ‘recycling’ of old ineffective nets. The researchers clearly found that in rural, peri-urban and urban settings people adopted innovative and beneficial ways of re-using old, expired nets, and those that were damaged beyond repair. Fencing for livestock, seedlings and crops were the most common uses in this predominantly agricultural area. Other domestic uses were well/water container covers, window screens, and braiding into rope that could be used for making chairs, beds and clotheslines. Recreational uses such as making footballs, football goals and children’s swings were reported

What we have learned here is that we should not jump to conclusions when we observe a LLIN that is set up for another purpose than protecting people from mosquito bites. Alternative uses of newly acquired nets do occur and may seem economically rational to poor communities. At the same time we must ensure that mass campaigns pay more attention to community involvement, culturally appropriate health education and onsite follow-up, especially the involvement of community health workers. Until such time as feasible safe disposal of ‘retired’ nets can be established, it would be good to work with communities to help them repurpose those nets that no longer can protect people from malaria.

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