4 February 2013

Kenya: Please Paint Your Mother's House


One definition of paint is "a liquid mixture, usually of a solid pigment in a liquid vehicle, used as a decorative or protective coating". Paints have been used for thousands of years but not by everyone.

Archaeological evidence has found that ancient Egyptians, for example, used six colours - white, black, blue, red, yellow, and green. They mixed their colours using some gummy substance then applied each colour separately.

They did not blend the colours and so might not have had shades such as 'cool pink' or 'desert peach'. Paint can be used for decorative purposes, but a primary use of paint is to protect various surfaces.

To make the best use of paint, which can be expensive, it is important to have the appropriate surface on which to apply it on. This should be something obvious to all of us.

Sadly though many people put up structures that paint would feel ashamed to be on. The people putting up such structures know deep down that this is true and so end up leaving such houses unprotected, bare and ugly.

Given our gender inequality, such houses are often occupied primarily by older women sometimes with a few young children sleeping in as well.

These structures meet the very basic definition of a house - that is walls, a roof, a door, maybe the odd window but not much else. Certainly they do not offer much protection against plasmodium, a group of one-celled animal parasites that live on the red blood cells of many mammals, birds and reptiles.

There are four human plasmodium species; P. falciparum, P. ovale, P. vivax and P. malariae. All cause malaria with P. falciparum being the most dangerous.

Malaria we know is a major killer in Kenya especially of children under five years. It also causes illness and death in pregnant women. Women are four times more likely to get sick, and twice as likely to die from malaria if they are pregnant.

Malaria in pregnancy can lead to an abortion, premature delivery and is associated with eclampsia - high blood pressure in pregnancy. Even without causing death, plasmodium slows people down.

It is estimated that in areas where malaria is endemic, people only harvest 40 per cent of their crops compared to healthy families. So plasmodium maybe a cause of poverty.

Plasmodium is an interesting parasite. Even though it is a human parasite, to survive it has to undergo some development in the stomach of the anopheles mosquito.

Unfortunately for us in Kenya, the mosquito is a very common insect. Worse still the unseasonal weather is making mosquitoes breed even in January and February, traditionally hot months when the number of mosquitoes would be expected to be low.

Because we often think that plasmodium is a parasite of the mosquito, we imagine that eliminating the mosquito will eliminate the parasite. But the parasite spends more time in the human body than in the mosquito.

Within the human body, plasmodium undergoes two stages; a liver stage then a blood stage. In the liver stage the parasite can become dormant for long periods.

Dormancy periods of up to 50 years in the case of P. malaria have been recorded. P. vivax and P. ovale can re-emerge after up to 18 months with P. falciparum surviving in the liver for up to a year.

The mosquito in contrast, like most insects, does not live for long. Some species of mosquitoes - and there are over 3,500 species, can develop from egg to adult in as little as five days, but typically they live for a maximum of about 40 days.

The reason mosquitoes and plasmodium make such a good couple is that the female mosquito needs to feed on blood in order for her eggs to develop.

The mosquito equipped with wings is therefore the prefect transmission vehicle for plasmodium which being one-celled would otherwise be challenged moving from one human to the next.

Insecticide impregnated mosquito nets are effective in killing mosquitoes that are already in the house. However there is a further strategy that can help reduce the mosquito load.

If you have ever paused to observe, mosquitoes enter the house through an open window, an open door or any gaps left between the roof and wall.

They are not in the habit of slithering through small gaps under the door like movie action heroes. Having a decent painted house puts the mosquito on notice. Light wall colours make the mosquito stand out. They become nervous.

A decently painted house means that you begin to take care of the compound around the house as well, eliminating the breeding grounds for the mosquito. So building decent houses for our women to live in is a good way to make the nation healthy.

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