If you’ve ever traveled to a part of the world where there’s a risk of malaria or other mosquito-borne disease, you probably slept under a mosquito net.
The gauzy fabric creates a physical barrier that protects you from mosquitoes. At the same time, you serve as bait in a deadly trap. Treated with potent insecticides, the net kills mosquitoes that land on it during their futile efforts to bite you.
It’s a remarkably simple tool, but it’s proven to be one of the most effective weapons we have against malaria. Increased bed net use is largely responsible for the more than 50 percent drop in malaria deaths worldwide since 2000.
Still, more needs to be done to ensure that communities at highest risk of malaria have access to them.
That’s why I’m excited that the government of Benin this year launched a new, innovative approach to distributing bed nets to their population.
Using smartphones, real time data collection, satellite mapping and other surveillance techniques, Benin’s distribution program will give health officials the data they need to provide full bed net coverage to the country.
Benin is faced with one of the highest burdens of malaria in the world. The West African country of nearly 12 million people has about 2 million cases each year. If successful, this new bed net distribution effort will save thousands of lives and serve as a blueprint for other high burden malaria countries to follow.
As you might imagine, distributing bed nets to every household is a massive logistical effort involving thousands of people—from truck drivers to health workers. And the job is made even harder in Benin where exact population numbers are uncertain.
For many years, Benin’s distribution campaigns were run with pencil and paper systems. Health officials used thick ledgers to keep track of the names and addresses of residents and how many beds nets they needed. It was time-consuming and often inaccurate. No one knew exactly how many nets would be needed or if they reached their intended destinations. As a result, many families were missed during the distribution, putting them at higher risk of malaria because they lacked the protection of a bed net.
But this year’s distribution is different. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services and our foundation, Benin’s national malaria program created a new, digitized distribution system that is more accurate and efficient in getting bed nets into the homes of all households in the country.
In many ways, this effort is based on the lessons the global health community has learned in the fight against polio. As vaccinators sought to immunize every child against polio in India and Nigeria, they would sometimes miss households, especially in remote areas. But with satellite mapping and better data collection, health workers were able to quickly identify gaps in vaccination coverage and reach every home.
Benin’s new bed net distribution operates in much the same way. Walking door to door, health workers make home visits throughout the country and perform a brief census: the number of people living there, including number of children and pregnant women, number of bed nets needed, etc. Using cell phones, they enter this information into a database. They also give each household a uniquely coded voucher to redeem at a nearby distribution center where they can collect their bed nets.
On the distribution day, people come to collect their nets and get lessons on the proper way to set up and care for them. As people arrive to redeem their vouchers for the nets, the malaria team has real time data on which households have received their nets and which ones have not. This data—which can be reviewed on a digital map—allows the malaria team to quickly identify any problems with their delivery system. It also gives health workers detailed information about which households need to be targeted for follow up to ensure they all have nets.
I admit none of what I’ve just described may sound that revolutionary. But in global health, I’ve learned again and again that saving lives is the result of getting the smallest details—from the temperature of a vaccine to the address of a beneficiary—right. And Benin’s new digitized bed net distribution program does just that by giving the government a powerful tool to manage a complex job.
And with this new digital distribution system in place, Benin can use it as a platform to manage other big health campaigns—like vaccinating against meningitis and door-to-door efforts to eliminate neglected tropical diseases.
I’m looking forward to hearing more about Benin’s progress in the fight against malaria and other diseases because of this new system—and I hope other countries will learn from their success.