In 2006, malaria caused approximately 880,000 deaths worldwide. According to the World Heath Organization, most of those who died were African children. Aid organizations are alarmed that such a preventable disease can still claim the lives of so many, but efforts to decrease the death toll are being made both internationally and on campus.
Tomorrow, the Cornell malaria intervention organization Cover Africa will host a sleep-out on the Arts Quad to raise awareness and money for malaria prevention. The event is in honor of Malaria Awareness Day on Saturday April 25.
In addition to running awareness and fundraising campaigns, Cover Africa also offers a service learning course which sends about 10 students each winter to Humjibre, Ghana to survey the local people and “to minimize the spread of malaria by providing education about the disease and donating bed nets to be used by local families,” according to treasurer Andrew Handel ’09.
Malaria is caused by parasitic protozoa of the genus Plasmodium, which are spread to humans by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. Since warm, damp areas serve as excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes, humans living in tropical environments are especially at risk for the spread of malaria. However, researchers studying malaria prevention might be at the verge of a breakthrough.
Although bed nets provide a barrier between humans and infected mosquitoes, their effectiveness is limited by physical constraints. Instead, researchers have been trying to develop a different method of prevention.
According to Prof. Laura Harrington, entomology, new research has focused on the mating biology of the mosquito. Scientists have studied the mating rituals of the male mosquito in an attempt to find a sterilizing mechanism that would decrease the total number of mosquitoes. By studying the acoustics of male mosquitoes’ wings, researchers hope to discover a particular “flight tone” that is most preferred by female mosquitoes, the carriers of malaria.
If they are successful, the researchers may be able to alter the males’ flight tone and release them into the wild, effectively decreasing their chances of mating with female mosquitoes. However, more research is needed in the area before the approach is feasible. “We need to understand more about the ecology of the mosquito in order to know how to control their population size,” Harrington said.
Substances called “synthetic blends” represent another innovation in malaria intervention. Synthetic blends are a mixture of chemicals that mimic the odors released naturally by human skin. These natural odors allow mosquitoes to identify humans to feed on, along with cues from body heat and moisture. Scientists hope to create a blend that will actually be more attractive to the mosquitoes than the odors of a real human.
Cristina Munk ’09 is analyzing data to determine how far mosquitoes can smell the odorant from. This information will be crucial to the placement of synthetic blends. Munk tests the mosquitoes’ range of smell by using a “semifield system,” which is a long, screened- in outdoor structure. Within the structure, a synthetic blend inside a trap is placed by groups of mosquitoes that are separated and colored according to their distance from the blend. Munk lets the mosquitoes loose within the semifield system overnight and counts the number of each color the next morning. Although results are still coming in, Munk said that the mosquitoes smell up to at least 100 meters, or the length of two Olympic size pools.
In the 2008 Millennium Development Goals Report, the United Nations set the goal to halt and begin to reduce the incidence of malaria by 2015. However, the report also claims that, “despite tremendous progress, use of insecticide treated mosquito nets falls short of global targets.”
Continued support of research on malaria is extremely necessary in order to find an end to the spread of this disease. Ellie Emery ’10, director of advocacy and awareness for Cover Africa, said Cover Africa represents “a display of solidarity within this global campaign to fight malaria. If someone even thinks about it while they’re walking by the sleep-out, that’s a start.”
Cover Africa’s Malaria Awareness sleep-out event is sponsored by the Cornell Store, the Class of 2010 and ALANA. The event will be held on the Arts Quad from noon April 23 through 4:00 p.m. April 24.