By Steve Baker, a member of the Rotary Club of Key Biscayne, Florida, USA.
When my wife and I lived in Caracas, Venezuela, from 2001 to 2006, I spent many months traveling on the Rio Alto Ventuari in Amazonas State, staying in indigenous villages. The Ye’kuana people I met still lived traditional lives, the women tending their small slash and burn gardens, the men hunting and fishing. I saw firsthand how they were affected by western- introduced diseases their shamans could not deal with. In particular, malaria sickened and sometimes killed them.
I developed a friendship with Casique Isaias Rodriguez, grand chief of the Ye’kuana people, who asked me to help them with malaria. I made him a promise to do so. Luckily, I have a friend who is an internationally recognized expert on the subject who works and teaches at the University Central de Venezuela. His advice was to get them anti-malaria bed nets, as there is no effective vaccine for malaria. The World Health Organization recommends Long Lasting Insecticide treated bed Nets. The nets are very effective at preventing the insect vector, the anopheles mosquito active only at night, from biting people in their sleep. No bite – no malaria.
But nets available off the shelf are made for people who sleep in beds, on mats, or on the ground. Indigenous people of the Amazon basin sleep in hammocks. The standard nets do not work because the hammock ropes break the integrity of the net.
I found manufacturers who were willing to make a series of prototype nets that addressed this problem by adding sleeves to the basic rectangle, allowing the ropes to pass through the nets safely. Our nets are called mosquiteros. I showed the prototypes to our Ye’ kuana friends and together, we made modifications so that the nets would fit their lifestyle. We started small with a purchase of 200 nets paid for by my wife & me. I delivered those first nets myself, then recruited friends and business associates to help pay for more nets and delivery cost.
By late in 2010, we had accomplished our goals in the Alto Ventuari. A friend suggested I speak to the Rotary club where we lived in Key Biscayne, Florida, to see if they might want to become involved in donating nets to a different region of Venezuela, Bolivar State, which is suffering an epidemic of malaria — with 40,000 infections last year. I guess the Key Biscayne Rotarians could see how on fire I am to continue and expand this project, because they invited me to join the club and introduced me to the magic of Rotary Foundation Matching Grants.
Working with Thomas Hacker, 2011-2012 governor of District 4370 –and three clubs from Venezuela, Puerto Ordaz, Cachamay Nuevas Generaciones, and Caroni de Puerto Ordaz, we applied for a grant and delivered 1,500 nets in October. Our latest nets are treated with deltamethrin that kills mosquitoes on contact, yet is harmless to humans.
How you can help
We continue to experiment with size, shape, materials, and treatment with insecticide. Our aim is to improve the nets with every purchase we make, driving down the cost while increasing effectiveness.
Our next fund raiser, Art Against Malaria, takes place 2 February at the Hardcore Contemporary Art Space in the Wynwood District of Miami. Like us on Facebook and I will send you an invitation.