A better way to distribute bed nets

Rabi Dako stands with her daughter in Cotonou, Benin after receiving mosquito nets as part of the nation’s first digitized mosquito net distribution.

Sophisticated digital technologies are helping field workers in Benin distribute malaria prevention tools safely and efficiently

If COVID-19 continues to disrupt malaria prevention efforts, hundreds of thousands of children could die. That’s the prediction of a model showing that deaths due to malaria in sub-Saharan Africa could reach 779,000 in 2020 – more than double the number in 2019.

Over the past two decades, malaria has been slowly beaten back using intensive, on-the-ground interventions, many aimed at protecting people from the mosquitoes that transmit the malaria parasite. One of the most effective of these is insecticide-treated bed nets, which protect people from mosquito bites while they sleep.

Bed nets are to malaria what masks are to COVID-19: simple tools that can be extremely effective, but only if people have access to them and use them properly. Health officials in Benin and elsewhere are now deploying sophisticated digital technologies to distribute bed nets – and they’re making it work despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

This project, conducted by Benin’s National Malaria Control Program, in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began in late 2019 with field workers making personal visits to every household in the country to determine how many bed nets were needed. Each worker used a cell phone to upload data to a centralized database, which also included geotagging the location of each household. Armed with this information, health officials knew exactly how many nets needed to be procured, and where they needed to be delivered.
Typically, each household would be given a voucher to redeem for bed nets at a centralized distribution center, but when COVID-19 struck the program quickly adapted. The government has been delivering nets door-to-door instead, While adopted out of necessity, going door-to-door has removed barriers, allowing the program to reach households who were unable to travel to the distribution sites even before the pandemic set in.

“Now we can deliver mosquito nets right to your door – just like an Amazon package,” points out CRS senior program manager Elijah Egwu.

Even better, health officials are using their new database to see in real time where nets are being distributed and if any households – or even entire neighborhoods – have been missed. WhatsApp support groups allow field workers to share solutions to fill in these gaps. This set of high-tech tools enabled Benin’s Ministry of Health to distribute more than 7 million low-tech bed nets to 3 million households in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown.

In the future the database could also be used to help distribute vitamin supplements, preventive medicines, or a COVID-19 vaccine. “The possibilities are really endless,” says Egwu. “Now we can predict basic public health needs based on where people are living – and deliver solutions directly to their doorsteps.”

Digitization was already helping Benin deliver existing malaria prevention tools more efficiently. With COVID-19 as the catalyst, access is now more convenient for households, too.Building a stronger public health infrastructure comes from innovation and efforts like this- ones that adapt what works and makes it even better.

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Workers deliver mosquito nets by motorbike as part of Benin’s first digitized mosquito net distribution.

Rabi Dako stands with her daughter in Cotonou, Benin after receiving mosquito nets as part of the nation’s first digitized mosquito net distribution.

Kweba Djitohou stands with her children in Cotonou, Benin after receiving mosquito nets as part of the nation’s first digitized mosquito net distribution.

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