Better forest can cut malaria spread

PRESERVING THE biodiversity of tropical forests could have the added benefit of cutting the spread of malaria, according to a new study. The finding contradicts the traditional view that clearing native forest for agriculture curbs malaria transmission in the Amazon rainforest. “Our study suggests, in contrast, that conservation of biodiversity can be reconciled with malaria control,” Gabriel Zorello, an epidemiologist at Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo and lead researcher of the study, says. The researchers looked at two aspects that can affect malaria transmission in forested areas: the numbers of warm-blooded animals and the numbers of mosquitoes that do not carry malaria. Their study area was a large, sparsely-populated forested mountain range within the Atlantic Forest of southeastern Brazil. Warm-blooded animals live there, including medium-to-large birds such as toucans and quails, and mammals such as howler monkeys and squirrels. No malaria cases have been reported on the mountain range in the past 30 years, but the primary malaria mosquito in the Atlantic Forest, Anopheles cruzii, lives nearby and could introduce the Plasmodium vivax parasite — associated with an estimated 80–300 million cases of malaria worldwide. The researchers plugged real data from the area into a mathematical model of their own design to explore what would happen to malaria rates when the numbers of warm-blooded animals and non-malarial mosquitoes grew. They found that the circulation of P. vivax is curbed when mosquitoes and animals are more abundant — suggesting that the mosquitoes compete with each other, and that the animals act as dead-end reservoirs of the malaria parasite. “These aspects of biodiversity that can hinder malaria transmission are services provided by the forest ecosystem,” says Zorello. The conclusion supports arguments against human occupation of protected natural areas and for including biodiversity issues in malaria eradication campaigns, the researchers write. Marta Moreno-Leirana, currently a researcher at the Iquitos Satellite Laboratory in Peru, says that it is essential to achieve a balance between preserving and modifying biodiversity. She adds that the research brings to light crucial elements that can affect malaria transmission, such as the behaviour of malaria vectors, but many more studies are needed to understand its complexity. But Olivier Briet, a researcher at the University of Basel’s Public Health Institute in Switzerland, disagrees with the suggestion that malaria eradication programmes should take biodiversity into consideration. He says that the researchers used an equation in their study that might have artificially increased the rates of malaria transmission, which challenges their conclusions. At best, he says, biodiversity might help reduce malaria at the fringes of malaria’s range, and at an added expense of higher numbers of “nuisance mosquitoes”. (SciDev)

 Mobile apps to tackle sanitation challenges

 MOBILE PHONE and web applications that enable people to talk to local policymakers and allow children to learn through games have won a competition for technological innovations that address sanitation problems in developing countries. One in three people today have no toilet and the global economic losses due to lack of access to sanitation amount to US$260 billion a year, according to the World Bank. The three winners of the World Bank’s Sanitation App Challenge were announced during the 2013 Spring Meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC, United States. Representatives from each team were invited to the event and are now on a week-long tour of Silicon Valley, California. The three apps — mSchool, SunClean and Taarifa — were chosen from ten finalists announced last. The winners were chosen by a combination of public votes and scrutiny by a group of tech experts and World Bank members. One judge, Jesse Shapiro, the water, sanitation and hygiene adviser of the US Agency for International Development, tells SciDev.Net that each app was assessed on its originality, quality of user interface, technical feasibility, economic viability, how it tackles an identified problem and the team effort involved in its development. “A lot of the apps that came out of this initiative were about accessing information and were based on the idea of transparency and the public providing information to decision-makers,” says Shapiro. One of the winners, mSchool, works along those lines. This text-messaging tool from Senegal allows students, parents and teachers to report sanitation breakdowns and repairs required in schools. “We set up mSchool as a platform for monitoring [sanitation] conditions in schools,” says Daniel Annerose, CEO of Manobi, the Senegal-based IT firm that developed the app. “It’s a system that can teach children to defend their basic rights and services,” he says. Another of the winning apps, called Taarifa, allows people in developing nations to link up with their local government, and is already in use in Uganda. It is an open-source app that allows communities to report and address local sanitation issues by collecting and visualising information, and enables public officials to respond. One of its developers, Florian Rathgeber, a computational scientist at Imperial College London, United Kingdom, says: “The idea was to provide a platform which one could use, especially from mobile devices, to report infrastructural issues and to get feedback on how they were processed and dealt with.” The last of the winners, SunClean, was developed by students at the University of Indonesia. It uses games to teach children about waste disposal and hand-washing. Jaehyang So, manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program that developed and funded the competition, says that they did not expect an entry that featured a game about sanitation. “But we thought it had a very strong messaging purpose and captured a part of life that is so common to everybody,” she adds. The app contest was an offshoot of the two-day Sanitation Hackathon events held simultaneously in 40 cities around the world last December. During these, programmers worked intensively with subject matter experts to find innovative solutions to local sanitation challenges. “Each of these hackathon events was very local to the cities. We wanted to create a global, virtual community and the App Challenge allowed us to do that,” says So. (SciDev)