Bednets, like seatbelts, are a proven lifesaver, a simple tool that has been shown to sharply reduce deaths from malaria. Yet like seatbelts, bednets can sometimes be a bit of a bother.
In Kenya, malaria kills an estimated 34,000 children under age five every year—enough children to fill about 75 of the country’s public primary schools. PATH and our partners are working to ensure that every home has at least one insecticide-treated bednet, which has been shown to reduce mortality by 23 percent in children under age 5. Just as importantly, we’re working to address the barriers, misconceptions, and concerns that keep people from using bednets.
Even in western Kenya, a malaria hotspot, bednets aren’t always an easy sell. During a recent visit to a village there, I was part of a PATH team listening in as people talked about bednets during a “community dialogue day”—a quarterly gathering sponsored by PATH where residents and health workers discuss local health concerns.
How many people have nets, we asked the group of about 40 people gathered for the discussion. Nearly every hand went up. And how many would let us visit their homes to see the nets? A self-conscious laugh rippled around the circle, and about half of the hands went down.
The bother with bednets
Here are some of the reasons people said they avoid using bednets:
- The net is too short and doesn’t fit around the bed.
- If you have to get up in the night, you can get tangled in the net and fall.
- It’s difficult to mount the net over the bed.
- It’s hard to breathe because the net feels too tight.
- It’s better to store the net in a clean place so it can be used when guests arrive.
One woman told us her bednet gave her bad dreams, while another said the net had a funny smell. Even some people who have had malaria said they don’t see the point of bednets since they’ve never gotten really sick.
Weighing the consequences
The health workers and other residents were quick to point out that the dangers of malaria far outweigh the inconveniences of bednets. If it comes to tolerating a funny smell or preventing malaria, one villager asked, which is more important?
A health worker noted that malaria can cause pregnant women to miscarry and that young children are particularly vulnerable to its effects. If you sleep under a net, he said, you and your children are protected.
As we traveled across western Kenya, it became clear that many children remain unprotected. Our team saw children seriously ill with malaria in nearly every clinic and hospital we visited. We heard from parents who miss work and lose precious income to care for children who become sick with the disease. And we met families grieving children who are disabled or dead because of malaria.
That’s why we’re supporting thousands of community health workers in western Kenya—trusted members of the community who reach out to their neighbors and family members with information about the serious threat that malaria poses and the strategies they can use to protect themselves.
Through these dedicated volunteers, we are building the case for bednets as a lifesaving necessity and empowering people to take responsibility for their own health.