A computerized analysis carried out by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seems to suggest that the spread of malaria can be prevented by changing the environment, using everything from shovels and ploughs to plant-derived pesticides.
The researchers say that this approach may be as important as mosquito nets and vaccinations in the fight against malaria.
The new computer model they have developed to analyse different methods of trying to control the spread of malaria has shown that environmental measures, such as levelling the land to eliminate depressions where pools can form, can be an important part of the strategy for controlling the disease.
While presenting their findings this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Elfatih Eltahir described malaria as "a significant global health challenge" that accounts for one-third of all deaths of children under five worldwide.
The researcher, whose team involved graduate students Arne Bomblies and Rebecca Gianotti, said that the new software that helps analyse the impacts of different methods of attempting to limit malaria's spread-which involves a complex chain of transmission between larvae, mosquitoes and humans-had enabled them to make "significant progress" toward better control of the disease.
He pointed out that most efforts at dealing with malaria have focused on the human side, such as attempts to develop a vaccine.
He said that the efforts to control environmental factors-such as working to eliminate the low spots where pools of water collect during the rainy season, or applying locally grown plant materials to limit the growth of mosquitoes-can have a dramatic effect on controlling malaria's spread.
Eltahir said that such an approach, unlike importing expensive medicines, can rely on local efforts as simple as having people with shovels fill in the low spots in the terrain.
"By using local tools and local labor, our approach relies less on high-technology equipment from outside the region, which tends to make the local people more dependent," he said.
As regards the new comprehensive computer model, the researcher said that it would continue providing them with a tool to analyse how different areas' vulnerability to malaria would be affected by a changing climate.
Eltahir revealed that he and his colleagues have been working in a remote area of Niger, in the Sahel desert region of northern Africa, for the last four years just to validate the accuracy of the computer modelling of conditions.
"Africa is the hot spot for malaria in general," he said, adding that, thus, this fieldwork provides substantial validation of the model.
Bomblies said: "We gathered data that would serve as validation for the model that we were developing."
Other methods the team has studied include spreading ground up seeds from the neem tree, which grows locally, in the ponds, which can reduce the mosquito population by about 50 percent.