Not too long ago, the people of Mgona Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Tengani in Nsanje used to be perennial victims of malaria.
Lying close to the endless swamps of Shire River, mosquitoes rein terror on anyone sleeping without protection.
Government and its cooperating partners have, over the years, collaborated in distributing insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) in an effort to avert malaria transmission and child mortality rates in the country.
An insecticide-treated mosquito net, hung over a bed, has been described as the front line in the battle against malaria.
It is also the perfect mosquito-killing machine. The gauzy mesh allows the carbon dioxide that people exhale to flow out, which attracts mosquitoes.
But as they swarm in, their cuticles touch the insecticide on the net’s surface, poisoning their nervous systems and shutting down their microscopic hearts.
No wonder World Health Organisation (WHO) argues ITNs are a magic bullet against malaria and one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stop a disease that kills at least half a million Africans each year.
WHO says nets are the primary reason malaria death rates in Africa have been cut in half since 2000.
George Pakhota of Mgona Village could have been one of those singing in praise of the nets had it been that he used his for the intended purpose.
But Pakhota and countless others in the district have other use for their mosquito nets. Nobody in his household, including his three children, sleeps under a net at night.
Instead, he has taken his family’s supply of anti-malaria nets and sewn them together into a gigantic sieve that he drags to the bottom of the swamp ponds, sweeping up all sorts of water life: baby catfish, banded tilapia, tiny mouth brooders, orange fish eggs, water bugs and the occasional green frog.
“I know that what I am doing is not right,” he confesses, “but without these nets, we cannot catch fish. Eventually, we’ll all die of hunger because this is the only occupation that helps us put food on the table.”
This has seen Pakhota’s family being a regular visitor of health centres to access malaria treatment.
National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust district civic education officer (DCEO) for Nsanje, Kondwani Malunga, notes that mosquito net fishing is a growing problem and an unintended consequence of one of the biggest and most celebrated public health campaigns in recent years, particularly along lakeshore areas.
Malunga states that nets have helped save millions of lives, but government and its partners need to start getting worried about the collateral damage: fishing.
He hints that many of these ITNs are dragged through the lakes and rivers people drink from, raising concerns about toxins.
The civic educator, therefore, suggests that Malawi needs a regulation to deal with those abusing the nets.
“It’s very unfortunate that some use the nets for fishing. Malawians need to know that government and its development partners have invested huge sums of money to procure these nets in an effort to avert cases of malaria and child mortality,” laments Malunga.
The civic educator, though not a fisheries expert, fears widespread use of nets for fishing will lead to the dwindling fish populations in the country’s rivers and lakes.
“They are catching very small fish that have not matured,” he says, adding: “The stocks won’t be able to grow.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested heavily in malaria research and development, says use of freshly-treated nets in a ‘smallish stream or a bay in the lake’ may lead to the killing of fish not intended for catch.
The foundation’s senior programme officer, Dan Strickman, is quoted by New York Times as warning that this will eventually result in serious environmental hazard.
Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) executive director, Martha Kwataine, adds that in some areas where little goes to waste, mosquito nets have become chicken coops and garden fences.
Kwataine recommends that government and its development partners should roll out a serious sensitisation campaign on the need to use nets for the intended purposes.
Chief of health services in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Charles Mwansambo, says the full extent of mosquito-net fishing is unknown because no one would be eager to admit wrong usage of the nets if government was to carry out a survey.
Mwansambo is, however, optimistic that most of the distributed nets are used for their intended purpose of protecting people from mosquito bites.
“This notwithstanding, we all need to join hands to sensitise those that misuse the nets to stop. Otherwise, it’s not only government and development partners that will lose the battle, the abusers, too, will suffer the consequences through suffering from bouts of malaria,” he says. n