Growing up in India, mosquito nets were an essential part of life. I slept under them as a child in Bangalore, with their ropes tied to bedposts, doors, closets, window grills—anything that would offer support at the right height. It was like pitching a tent every night, and the occasional dramatic collapse would result in much helpless laughter. Later, going to college on the banks of the slow-flowing Koovam river in Madras (now Chennai), I tucked myself under a net in my dormitory at about 6 p.m. to avoid the twilight assault of mosquitos from the water. In fact, particularly after a bad attack of malaria when I was a child, a lot of my life was lived perforce under a mosquito net, until electric repellent gadgets reached the market and nets somewhat lost their popularity.
Recently, sitting in Halima Ibrahim’s house in Majengo, a neighborhood in the coastal city of Mombasa, and talking about the new mosquito nets her family had just received from the Kenyan government, I felt instantly at home in her tiny living room. It was packed from corner to corner with family and friends, all brimming with opinions about nets old and new. Everybody talked about malaria and what a problem the disease was in the community. The nets that had just been distributed to them free of cost would make a huge difference, they said, protecting them from being bitten by mosquitos, and saving them considerable expense. Many of the families on the street simply could not afford to buy durable and effective nets at the prices they commanded in the local market.
Through a small door across from where I was sitting was a familiar sight – a small bedroom with a large bed stretched from wall to wall, overhung with an enormous net. In the bed lay a very tiny baby in a red frock and cap, the only member of the family taking a siesta at five o’clock in the evening. Showing us her new baby and talking about the mosquito net she had just received, Halima’s daughter Asanat, a mother of three young children, said that during her first pregnancy, she had received a net at the public clinic. The new nets she received were much better than the old one she said, they were the right size, and of improved quality and durability.
In Kenya, where malaria is endemic in some parts of the country including Mombasa and the coastal districts, eight out of 10 households now own nets to help them beat a vicious disease that both takes away lives and reduces productivity. Mosquito nets that protect from malaria have been making a huge difference to the number of babies surviving through their infancy in the country. Research published last year by the World Bank showed that about half the dramatic reduction in infant mortality in Kenya—a drop of 7.6 percent a year between recent Demographic and Health Surveys—could be attributed to the use of nets. Kenya’s progress in saving babies under the age of one is the fastest among 20 countries with available data in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The theme of this year’s World Malaria Day was “Invest in the Future: Defeat Malaria”. As we recognize this, Kenya’s achievement is really worth celebrating.