A solar-powered mosquito trap is showing early signs of helping to lower the incidence of malaria on Rusinga Island, in Western Kenya.
The device, invented by Kenyan and Dutch researchers, uses a solar roof panel to power an electric fan and mosquito zapper, installed on the outside of traditional tin-roofed mud and daub houses on the island. Nylon strips, impregnated with artificial human scent, help draw mosquitoes to the trap and the fan sucks them into the device, the researchers said.
Dr Shanaz Sharif, Kenya's director of public health, predicted the device could help "reduce the burden of public spending toward treating malaria, which is about $100 million per year."
Rusinga Island in Western Kenya is known for its near year-round heat and its high prevalence of malaria. But the sunshine also makes it particularly suitable for solar-powered devices.
So far, the inventors of the device have tested it in 470 households. Besides capturing mosquitoes, its solar panels can power two light bulbs and a charging point for mobile phones.
"We saw that something should be done," said Richard Mukabana of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecolology (ICIPE), one of the device's creators, in an interview. Now, "we want to spread this far beyond just Rusinga."
Backers of the SolarMal device hope to begin selling it commercially sometime over the next year, Mukabana said.
The device also aims to reduce dependency on insecticides and growing mosquito resistance to the pesticides, said Mukabana, who developed the device with Willem Takken, a professor at Wagenigen University in the Netherlands.
Residents of Rusinga Island, home to 22,000 people, say they feel the device is giving them some level of greater protection against malaria.
Phylis Oduol said in a telephone interview that she and her children now suffer fewer mosquito bites while sleeping since the pilot solar mosquito killer was installed in her home.
'MY FAMILY IS SAFER'
"My main worry is my two children, aged seven and two. I am pregnant so am also vulnerable. Malaria kills pregnant women," she said. The device, "is working well, that's what I can tell you," she said.
Her husband Joseph Oduol, 31, who works as a mobile phone vendor in Nairobi, said that with the device, "at least I can say my family is safer."
Peter Otieno, 23, who also has one of the devices in his home, said that an added attraction is that "we do not have to go through all the trouble of using insecticide treated nets on our beds in this hot weather."
He says he has seen a gradual decline in mosquito numbers around his home, which translates into fewer bites. Like other people using the new device, he received it free of charge as part of the pilot project.
Sharif, Kenya's director of public health, said hospital records show some reduction in malaria cases on Rusinga Island over the last year.
"Malaria cases have gone down based on hospital records in Rusinga Island which is part of Homa Bay County. It's just a slight margin," he said.
David Soti, an official at the health ministry, said in an interview that "any new way of controlling malaria" in Kenya is welcome. Malaria kills over 35,000 people in Kenya each year, Sharif said.
Malaria is a growing concern on Rusinga Island and in other places in Kenya where weather has become warmer and more volatile in recent years, making it easier for mosquitoes to breed in larger numbers, officials said.
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.