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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 23, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 23
Public Health: Plastic Sheeting Could Be Used as Weapon to Fight Malaria

By Tim Parsons
School of Public Health

Each year, 300 million to 500 million people worldwide are infected with malaria, according the World Health Organization, and the disease is the No. 1 killer of refugees in many war-torn countries of Africa. Soon, plastic sheeting treated with insecticide could be a promising new weapon in the fight against malaria in Africa. Currently, researchers from the new malaria response program of the School of Public Health's Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies, which is called MENTOR for Malaria Emergency Technical and Operational Response, are evaluating the insecticide-treated plastic's effectiveness at two camps in Sierra Leone.

According to Richard Allan, director of the MENTOR initiative, plastic sheeting is an essential survival tool for refugees in Africa seeking shelter. Allan helped develop the insecticide-treated sheeting as a practical method of keeping malaria-spreading mosquitoes out of refugee shelters. Unlike blankets or mosquito netting, few people are willing to part with their plastic shelters. "I've seen refugees trade their children for rice and keep their plastic," Allan said. Because plastic sheeting is so highly valued, refugees are more likely to use it continuously, which could help reduce the spread of the disease. Allan said the preliminary results are promising. If tests are successful, the insecticide-treated sheeting could replace the standard shelter material distributed by the United Nations. Insecticide treatment also is being considered for blankets and wallpaper to further protect against malaria and other diseases.

MENTOR was established in October 2002, when the United Nations turned over some of its malaria-fighting efforts to an independent organization. According to Allan, CIEDRS was selected to manage the program because of its cooperation with other nongovernmental organizations and experience in training and emergency relief. MENTOR provides technical assistance, guidance and support to relief workers in the field. Training courses began at the School of Public Health in December 2003.

In addition to work in Sierra Leone, the MENTOR initiative is active in Liberia, where malaria accounts for 30 percent to 45 percent of all illnesses among displaced people, according to health officials. Allan said MENTOR is working closely with the Liberian Ministry of Health and other agencies to develop a national malaria control strategy and improve public health.


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