While medical researchers throughout the world are working around the clock to combat malaria, a disease that continues to kill one child every two minutes, one of the most effective measures is hardly complex or complicated: the mosquito net.
Since 2000, mosquito nets treated with insecticide have prevented 68 percent of malaria cases in Africa, according to the organization Malaria No More. And that’s just one important way modern nets more effectively shoo away disease-carrying mosquitos.
In the past, mosquito nets were made from materials like cotton and other plant fibers. But when made from nylon, the nets can last for years, which is important in remote areas where it can be difficult to deliver them. Invented in 1935 by organic chemist Wallace Hume Carothers, then a group leader at the Dupont Experimental Station laboratory in Delaware, nylon is made from the petrochemical ethylene, which is used to make polyester and polyethylene. Used in all sorts of applications, from clothing to rope to reinforcing rubber material like car tires, nylon is valued for its durability and toughness. So, unlike cotton-made mosquito nets, nylon nets can be washed over and over without washing out bug-deterring insecticides or tearing holes in the fabric.
Nylon nets more effective than those made from traditional woven fibers because the threads in the net can’t bunch together and create gaps that mosquitoes can fit through. They are also able to hold insecticides that last for several years.
Also, they’re affordable, at a cost of just a few dollars each.
Increased funding for the global distribution of these nets has made a big difference in the fight again malaria. In 2018, the number of insecticide-treated nets distributed globally was almost 200 million, quite a difference from the 5.5 million delivered to endemic countries just 14 years earlier. The World Health Organization reports that the number of women and children in sub-Saharan African who slept under an insecticide-treated mosquito net more than doubled between 2010 and 2018, from 26 percent to 61 percent.
“The rapid scale-up of insecticide-treated mosquito nets – particularly in Africa – has turned the tide against malaria, putting the world on the path to ending this ancient disease within our lifetimes,” said Martin Edlund, CEO of Malaria No More. “In the process, the insecticide-treated net has proven itself an essential life-saving tool for a generation of Africans, and has become a symbol of effective foreign assistance.”
While most people in the U.S. don’t use mosquito nets, petrochemicals like ethylene, propylene, xylene, and the materials made from them, are very much part of our medical care here at home too. They are used in everything from aspirin and bandages, to MRIs and prosthetics. Learn more about all that petrochemicals make possible in our lives every day.