Better Lives Blog
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Preventing Malaria Rain or Shine

Tom Putzer


workers in a rice paddy 

The rainy season is a constant factor for people that live in the rural villages of Myanmar, which is part of the Mekong Region of Southeast Asia. It typically lasts from the end of May until late October, leading to fertile land for the production of many crops including rice, rubber, and bamboo. That’s the good news.

The downside is that the intense rain also makes life challenging for the people that live here because it can cause flooding and attract mosquitoes – leading to a potential health risk.

In Myanmar, homes are built on stilts to account for rising water. School children at times need to take longboats to school down the same roads they walked just a few months earlier. Refugees and migrant workers often stay in temporary tents provided by relief agencies or plantations, and these are generally insufficient to keep the heavy rains out. And rice paddies can get destroyed when they remain under water for too long. Because that can be the sole source of income generation for some village farmers, it can make living through the rainy season very difficult.

The wet climate is a major reason why mosquitoes thrive here, making malaria eradication challenging too. Malaria transmission typically hits its peak during, and just after, the rainy season. Anopheles mosquitoes, carriers of malaria, naturally breed in warm, stagnant, shallow water – the type of conditions that rice paddies provide. And the ongoing development in the region has created large areas with no groundcover, which causes rainwater to collect in ditches, pools, and even footprints, creating ideal locations for mosquitoes to breed.  

flooded home 

You would think that rain would wash mosquitoes away. Not so. Despite all of the rain, the mosquito can still travel and spread malaria. The mass of a typical raindrop is about 50 times that of a mosquito. To put that into perspective, that would be like flying an airplane through a storm of raindrops weighing 5000 tons or more. In fact, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology conducted high-speed videography that shows that a mosquito’s low inertia is the key. The raindrops don’t splash on the mosquitoes – they actually create a puff of air to move the mosquito out of the way allowing them to continue the path toward their target – humans.

Since the rainy season is an ongoing factor in our end users’ lives, any of the malaria-preventative solutions we develop must address their unique needs — and still be efficacious even during the rainy season. A mantra of sorts for our Base of the Pyramid team is that we must allow people who live in areas affected by malaria to guide us with their priorities, with how they live, and with what’s important to them. That is why our team makes the effort to immerse itself into the daily lives of those at the Base of the Pyramid. That way, we can experience their challenges for ourselves. It helps inform and drives our work.  

The conditions presented by the rainy season in Myanmar really challenge our team to be creative and design solutions that will fit into the lives of our end users. But our end goal is to create sustainable solutions that will ultimately eradicate malaria. And that needs to happen rain or shine.

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