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Twitter-Celeb Mosquito Nets: What Good Will They Do?

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
April 21, 2009
 
It began as a popularity contest on Twitter between Ashton Kutcher and CNN. But it should end with thousands of Africans not having to worry about contracting malaria in their sleep.

Last week, the Hollywood actor—aka "aplusk" on Twitter—beat out news network CNN to become the first user to attract a million followers on Twitter, where users post online messages in 140 characters or less.

As part of his victory, and in recognition of World Malaria Day (April 25), Kutcher donated a hundred thousand U.S. dollars to Malaria No More, a nonprofit that aims to provide by 2010 nets for 600 million Africans at risk of malaria.

Kutcher's cash will buy 10,000 mosquito nets for families in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of all malaria-related deaths occur.

Despite losing the Twitter face-off, CNN is also donating 10,000 mosquito nets. Other celebrities (and fellow Twitter fans) quickly followed suit: Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, and Kutcher's wife, Demi Moore, among others.

Worldwide, malaria causes more than a million deaths a year and kills an African child every 30 seconds, according to Malaria No More.

(See malaria pictures.)

Why Mosquito Nets Are Effective

The mosquito nets distributed by Malaria No More are long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets.

Used properly, the bed-covering nets last up to five years, said Malaria No More spokesperson Emily Bergantino. Each net can protect up to two people, typically two children or a mother and her baby.

According to the World Health Organization, insecticide-treated mosquito nets can reduce malaria infections by about 50 percent and cut child deaths from the disease by about 20 percent. The nets are effective because malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Africa are generally active at night.

Mosquito bed nets are an appropriate preventative measure against malaria in Africa, where the disease is generally transmitted indoors, said Michael Reddy, a Yale University epidemiologist working to prevent malaria transmission in Equatorial Guinea.

Bigger Than a Twitter Conversation

But mosquito net distribution isn't enough, Reddy said.

It's also important to educate people about how to use the nets and why the nets work—and to follow up to make sure the nets have been installed correctly.

Malaria No More's Bergantino said the Twitter-inspired mosquito net donations will include education, monitoring, and evaluation.

Derek Willis, a scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey who studies malaria-control programs and the economic burdens of the disease, commended Kutcher for fostering public discussion.

"If you asked most Americans about malaria [before the Twitter contest], they probably would have told you they thought it was already eradicated," Willis said.

But suppressing malaria worldwide will involve tools other than nets, such as environmental engineering to reduce mosquito breeding as well as new insecticides, Willis said. (See "Modified Mosquitoes May Be Anti-Malaria Allies.")

Spreading that message could prove a major challenge.

"I don't know if the American public has the attention span to listen to more than a few sentences or whatever can fit into a Twitter conversation about this topic," Willis said.
 

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