Lantana

In the late 1990s, the hills around Ngara in northwest Tanzania were still home to thousands of families who had fled the terror of genocide in neighboring Rwanda and ongoing trouble in Burundi. Today, the former refugee camps are empty and refugees have returned home, but they may have left behind the  seed of an idea which could have huge consequences for millions of people.

“Concern came and motivated us to put in these plants — and they have made a big difference here.” — Local resident John Elfast.

The plant to which John referred is the Lantana Camara, a shrub with beautiful, vibrantly colored flowers that can range from orange to yellow to pink and red.  It was introduced in Africa some time in the 19th century.

Nobody at Concern quite remembers who first came across the story of how Lantana acts as a natural mosquito repellent, but the consensus is that it rose out of one of the massive Concern-managed refugee camps in the area. A staff member working in one of the camps heard it from one of the refugees, and somewhere along the way it made its way into a proposal for a research project.

RESEARCH RESULTS EXCITING

In a small building marked “Laboratory” in an old camp service compound, Concern researcher Frank Mng’ong’o opened a laptop and fired up some spreadsheets of data. “We planted Lantana around 231 houses and then regularly measured the number of mosquitoes inside people’s homes,” he said. “The houses with Lantana had 56 percent fewer Anopheles gambiae and 83 percent fewer Anopheles funestus,” the two most common malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Africa.

Felina Everest and her family first received lantana plants in 2009 and since they have not suffered from malaria, because "there are few or none" mosquitoes in their home.

Felina Everest and her family first received Lantana plants in 2009 and since they have not suffered from malaria, because “there are few or none” mosquitoes in their home.

These are exciting results. Because most mosquito bites happen inside at night, protecting the home is a major step towards reducing the incidence of malaria. The next phase will involve testing the effectiveness of a sterile variety of the plant, important because Lantana is an invasive species that can endanger crops. The last link in the chain will be a clinical trial to prove whether or not malaria infection rates are actually reduced by the presence of Lantana.

If so, the potential is enormous. Malaria kills a child somewhere in the world every minute, infects more than 200 million people each year, resulting in estimated 660,000 deaths, mostly children in Africa — where 90 percent of malaria deaths occur. Lantana — cheap, simple, and sustainable — could be an invaluable tool in the fight to save lives.

“Imagine if this became a standard practice across the continent of Africa and beyond,” mused Concern US CEO Joe Cahalan, who has taken a keen interest in the project from its early stage. “A cheap, low maintenance, sustainable weapon in the fight against one of the world’s most deadly diseases — now wouldn’t that be something?”

The research project, conducted by staff of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and backed by Concern US with support from the Xerox Foundation, may be producing some impressive data, but in the rural highlands of northwestern Tanzania, John Elfast and his neighbors don’t need any paperwork to convince them of the efficacy of Lantana. “I recommend that it be planted all over,” he said. “It prevents mosquitoes and decreases malaria.”

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