Malaria 101 - 'B' is for BITE PREVENTION: Guarding against the biting menace

Posted on November 24, 2023

Malaria is a life-threatening disease, transmitted by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes when they bite a human during a blood meal. While treatments are available to cure malaria, prevention remains the most effective strategy in the battle against this formidable foe.

Knowing the A, B, C, Ds of malaria is crucial for prevention, early detection, and effective treatment. "B" is for BITE PREVENTION. The first line of defense against malaria in endemic areas is protection from biting mosquitoes.  This article looks at the best ways to avoid being bitten.

The University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control creates a platform for diverse experts to bring their unique skills and knowledge to the table and join forces to address malaria holistically. 

Why do mosquitoes bite?

Before looking at how to avoid mosquito bites, one needs to know why mosquitoes bite. Female mosquitoes require blood to obtain the necessary nutrients for egg development. Blood serves as a protein source rich in amino acids, which is essential for the female mosquito's reproductive process. The act of female mosquitoes seeking blood is then what makes them vectors for diseases. Male mosquitoes, on the other hand, primarily feed on nectar and plant juices, as they do not participate in egg-laying.

Many mosquito species, including those that transmit malaria, rest on indoor surfaces, either high up against walls or under furniture, after feeding. This forms the basis of malaria vector control through indoor residual spraying (IRS). IRS aims to target these resting mosquitoes, breaking the transmission cycle of the disease. The insecticide forms a residual barrier on sprayed surfaces. When mosquitoes come into contact with these surfaces, the insecticide affects their nervous system, leading to their incapacitation or death.

Malaria (bite) prevention strategies

There are different strategies and measures that are effective in reducing the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes. To prevent mosquito bites, consider avoiding outdoor activities between dusk and dawn. Anopheles mosquitoes are most active during these times, increasing the risk of bites. If possible, schedule outdoor activities during daylight hours to reduce exposure to mosquitoes. This is not always feasible in rural areas where people often cook outside or socialise until late in the evening.

If there is a need to be outside between dusk and dawn, then personal bite protection methods should be considered. The application of insect repellent is an effective prevention measure. When applied to exposed skin and clothing, insect repellents deter mosquitoes from landing and biting. Proper application and regular use of repellent are crucial to its effectiveness. Clothing also plays a role in prevention. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, particularly during peak mosquito activity hours, can significantly reduce the risk of mosquito bites. Light-coloured clothing is preferable, as mosquitoes are often attracted to darker colours.

When indoors, one of the simplest yet most effective prevention methods is bed nets. Nets treated with insecticide create a protective barrier that shields individuals from mosquito bites, especially while they sleep. Sleeping under an insecticide-treated bed net significantly reduces the risk of being infected with malaria. Ensuring that these nets are used consistently is fundamental in safeguarding against this disease.

Complementing the use of bed nets, the installation of screens on windows and doors is a simple yet effective method to prevent malaria transmission. These screens act as a barrier, preventing mosquitoes from entering living spaces while allowing for ventilation. By creating a physical barrier, screens provide an additional layer of protection for households and individuals. Preventing mosquito bites can also be achieved by using anti-mosquito sprays, insecticide dispensers, or burning mosquito coils at night. Insecticide dispensers release repellent into the air, providing continuous protection in enclosed spaces. Similarly, burning mosquito coils produces smoke with insect-repelling properties, acting as a deterrent.

Additionally, prevention extends to our immediate environment. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so eliminating potential breeding sites around living space is paramount. This includes draining standing water from containers, regularly cleaning gutters, and adequately covering water storage containers.

Habit-changing mosquitoes

The shift in mosquito feeding habits from predominantly indoor to outdoor settings has significant implications for disease transmission. Traditionally, malaria-transmitting mosquitoes were known for their preference for indoor feeding. However, changes in environmental factors, human behaviour, and indoor control methods like insecticide use have led to a notable increase in outdoor feeding. This alteration poses challenges for conventional vector control methods, emphasising the need for surveillance and adaptive strategies to address the changing dynamics of mosquito behaviour.

Malaria prevention methods are our first line of defense against this deadly disease. Understanding the importance of prevention and embracing a comprehensive approach to avoiding being bitten can significantly reduce the malaria burden. Research and awareness can make a difference.

For more information, visit the webpage of the University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control, a multi-disciplinary research institute making a substantial contribution towards the creation of a malaria-free Africa.

Read more from the Malaria 101 series

- Author Dr Taneshka Kruger

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