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This Invention by Burkinabe and Burundian Student Scientists Could Save Thousands from Malaria

Screen Capture of Scientists presentation at Maker Faire in Rome , November 2014

Screen Capture of Niyondiko and Dembele’ video at their presentation at Maker Faire in Rome, November 2014

Saving thousands of lives doesn't have to cost millions of dollars. Two students in Africa recently demonstrated that it takes as little as 59 cents to keep some human beings alive, and the solution can be as simple as a bar of soap.

Moctar Dembele, a native of Burkina Faso, and Gerard Niyondiko, born in Burundi, are students at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Dembele and Niyondiko are no strangers to the threat of malaria, which is the leading cause of death in Subsaharan Africa. Every year around the world, about 600,000 people die from malaria—a disease caused by parasites that are spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. The symptoms typically include fever, fatigue, vomiting, and headaches.

To help counter the disease, Dembele and Niyondiko invented a soap made from locally sourced herbs and natural ingredients, like Shea butter and lemongrass oil, that repel disease-carrying mosquitoes. They called it the “Faso soap”. The concept has the appeal of being both highly practical and affordable:

To help them with their initiative, UC Berkeley's Global Social Venture Competition recently awarded Dembélé and Niyondiko $26,500.

The science behind the idea is quite straightforward, explains Hugo Jalinière, a science reporter at Sciences et Avenir, a French science magazine:

Le savon possède deux caractéristiques: D’abord, une capacité à repousser les moustiques par son odeur. Mais il contient également un composant intérieur qui tue les larves et empêche leur prolifération dans les eaux stagnantes. Les tests effectués sur un échantillon de la population à Ouagadougou se sont en tous cas révélés assez concluants.

The soap acts as a repellent in two ways: its smell and an inside component that kills the larvae and prevents their proliferation in still water. The tests performed on a sample population in Ouagadougou [the capital of Burkina Faso] turned out quite promising.

According to the World Health Organization, there are about 200 millions cases of malaria infections annually, resulting in roughly 660,000 deaths. There is no vaccine yet against malaria, but a plethora of antimalarial medications are available as treatments for the various symptoms. Prevention measures are plenty, but there is no full-proof protection against parasite-carrying mosquitoes and repellents are part of the combination of preventive measures used in the region.

Scientists have extensively studied different plant-based repellents against mosquitoes. Sarah Moore, a scientist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says the results of studies on such repellents’ efficiency are so far are inconclusive, but their use has gained in popularity because of the rationale behind such measures:

The field of plant-based repellents is moving forward as consumers demand means of protection from arthropod bites that are safe, pleasant to use and environmentally sustainable. It is also extremely fertile due to wealth of insecticidal compounds found in plants as defences against insects. The modern pyrethroids that are the mainstay of the current malaria elimination program that is making excellent progress are harmless to mammals.

Screen Capture of Interactive Africa Map of Artemisinins data via WWARN

Screen Capture of Interactive Africa Map of Artemisinins data via WWARN

Dembélé and Niyondiko are also painfully aware of the economic obstacles to fighting malaria. Niyondiko's home country, Burundi, is currently in the middle of a grave humanitarian crisis and the nation ranks 167th among 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Burkina Faso went through its own political upheaval recently and about half of the population lives on less than 1.25 USD a day.

Any sustainable solutions to malaria in Africa must be especially affordable, given the region's history and ongoing struggles. With this in mind, Dembélé and Niyondiko sought to design Faso soap to be as low cost as possible.

The project, moreover, could not come at a better time, as the Worldwide Antimalarial Resistance Network recently warned health agencies that resistance to the antimalarial drug artemisinin is on the rise:

As of February 2015, artemisinin resistance has been confirmed in 5 countries [..] In the large majority of sites, patients with artemisinin-resistant parasites still recover after treatment, provided that they are treated with an ACT containing an effective partner drug. However, along the Cambodia-Thailand border, P. falciparum has become resistant to almost all available antimalarial medicines. There is a real risk that multidrug resistance will soon emerge in other parts of the subregion as well.

Dembélé and Niyondiko know the road ahead is still long, but they say they are prepared for an extended fight. Dembélé says the battle is about more than beating the disease; it's also about giving Africa brighter hopes for its own future. After winning the award from UC Berkeley, he said:

Je suis très content que ce prix revienne en Afrique et particulièrement au Burkina Faso. C’est la première fois qu’une équipe non américaine remporte ce prix. C’est la fierté pour la jeunesse, c’est la fierté pour l’Afrique. Ça doit encourager la jeunesse à aller de l’avant.

I am very happy that this award is also a victory for Africa and particularly for Burkina Faso. This is the first time a non-American team has won this award. This award is to honor of all the youth of Africa. We hope it will inspire others to move forward.

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