Bart Knols has declared war on mosquitoes, armed with nothing more than plastic tubes and fine netting, and steely determination. The Dutchman and his colleagues from In2Care, a small startup company he founded in 2011, are on a mission to eradicate the disease, step by step, in some of the worst affected areas of Africa.
Speaking to Euronews Explorers, his incredible drive in taking on this seemingly unbeatable disease is simply expressed: “I’ve been in this field for 22 years, I’ve had malaria nine times myself, I almost lost my wife to it, and I’ve seen too many children die in small clinics in the remotest corners of Africa – what more motivation do you want?”
Malaria is a very common and deadly parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes, killing an estimated 600,000 people each year, many of them children under five years of age, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s one death every minute. Yet many believe it can be beaten. Bill Gates and Pedro Alonso, Director of the Global Malaria Programme of the World Health Organization recently announced that malaria could be eradicated from the face of the planet by 2030, if the right tools are in place.
The way Bart has gone about tackling malaria is different and innovative. Thanks to an EU research grant in 2012, he brought together a diverse team of experts to try to find new ways to deal with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
“I got people involved who had no idea about malaria but were total experts in other field like chemistry or physics, or had a business background, and let them have a completely novel look at the system,” he explains.
“We all went to Tanzania and sat down under a big mango tree in a rural village and talked for hours. Within a week 12 completely new ideas on how to deal with mosquitoes surfaced, which was an amazing and surprising achievement.”
Among those 12 was one solution that appeared simple yet deadly effective – the Eave Tube. Malaria mosquitoes bite mostly at night and indoors and are attracted into homes by the scent of humans inside. Their preferred way into the home is through the eaves, the opening just below the roof and the walls.
The Eave Tube is a PVC tube with a unique piece of netting across it, coated with a powerful insecticide. The netting is covered with a layer of electrostatic coating originally developed for trapping pollen on window screening as a means to reduce hay fever. It turns out that the same technology can be used to carry a powerful insecticide that quickly gets to work to kill off the mosquitoes, even those who have built up resistance.
The tubes are installed every meter or so along the eave, and the rest of the space is blocked off. As the tubes are out of reach of adults and children during everyday life, the netting can be coated with more potent chemicals in combination, which again helps in fighting the buildup of resistance among the mosquito population.
The result is clear: Inside homes fitted with tubes a reduction of malaria mosquitoes of over 80 per cent has been observed. “Within nine months of the idea coming up under a mango tree we were installing the tubes into people’s houses, which is incredibly fast in science,” Bart enthuses. “In some houses we measured up to 7,000 mosquitoes entering a house within a week. So we are killing lots of mosquitoes in a very simple way. “
As mosquitoes are the sole vectors for human malaria, the Eave Tubes could be a key element in an integrated and concerted push to wipe out malaria from large regions of Africa, and not least because the system is affordable. “An average household of 4 to 5 people would pay under 1-1.5 euro per person per year over the course of 10 years,” says Bart.
So what’s missing to make malaria history? Bart has plenty of opinions on the subject, and the hands-on experience to know what really works in the villages and towns he visits. He believes that with the right financial support and investment of human resources, plus medical innovations to stop the transfer of malaria from infected patients back to mosquitoes, this feverish scourge can be beaten.
“With the right tools and their clever application we can do it, but we now need the framework and funds to go to scale and make it happen. Give us 45 million euros and we can cover 1 million houses in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania where malaria hits hardest,” says Bart. “It’s time to start thinking big.”