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Fashion - Health - 30 January 2021

Anti-Malaria Fashionable Clothes

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Emma Barbier

@emmabarbier

Imagine being able to protect human lives, all while wearing fashionable clothes? Seems like a far-fetched dream. Well actually no, when a scientist and a designer come together, they can make the impossible happen. 

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What exactly is malaria?

Malaria is an extremely deadly disease which kills 300-600 million people annually. Most of those victims are children aged 1-5. If we do the maths, it comes to 300 children losing their lives in a single day. It is said that 90% of the worldwide cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa. This is because the primary vectors of the disease, mosquitoes, are abundant in this part of the world. Alongside this, a lot of individuals living in these parts of the world live in poverty and do not have enough money to adequately protect themselves from mosquito bites.

History

The deadly disease has been roaming around for centuries. Malaria was described in ancient Chinese documents (2700 BC) and Egyptian papyri (1570 BC). Interestingly, it is thought that the pharaoh Tutankhamun was infected with malaria.  However, we only properly started understanding the disease in the 1880s, when the French scientist Alphonse Laveran discovered malaria parasites in his patient’s blood.

The organism responsible for all these deaths, is not the mosquito itself. It is actually caused by a one-celled organism, a parasite, belonging to the plasmodium family. This parasite enters the host (the mosquito) where it starts slowly developing. Once the mosquito bites its prey, the parasite transfers from the mosquito to the victim where it will reside in the liver. The parasitic cells will start growing and multiplying, and finally start attacking the red blood cells.

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Transmission and protection

There are about 200 different species of malaria. Interestingly, they do not only restrict themselves to humans.

 

Malaria can and will also infect bats, lizards and mammals. The recent introduction of this disease on the archipelago of Hawaii infected many local animals and even cause the extinction of a dozen bird species.

 

With today’s scientific advances, scientists have created drugs which kill the plasmodium parasite. These are called antimalarials, and they can be used preventatively. They can even be used as a treatment, if the disease is spotted in its early onset. But these drugs are expensive, but luckily there are some cheaper alternatives. These can come in the form of a physical barrier, such as mosquito nets and thick clothing, and in the form of a chemical barrier, such as an insect repellent.

 

But what happens when you mix the two together?

Mixing fashion with prevention

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This is the question that the scientist Frederick Ochanda and fashion designer Matilda Ceesay asked themselves. They have collaborated together to create an innovative material where the repellent is bonded at the molecular to the net fibres. This is done by using a strong metal organic framework, a structure formed by combining metal ions and organic linkers.

 

A similar coating technique is already used today, but definitely is not as effective as nano-bonding. Today, we just dip out material which we want coated (ie. mosquito net) in the insect repellent. Residues from the repellent will imprint in the fabric, but not link. The coating technique invented by Ochanda and Ceesay is much more effective as it bonds three times as much repellent to the fabric than the regular dripping method.

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Matilda Ceesay, originally from Gambia, travelled over to Cornell University in the United States to study apparel design. During her studies, she created a one-piece body suit which she hand-dyed with vibrant shades of gold, blue and purple. She embedded this body suit with the insect repellent previously described, so that anyone wearing it will be protected from malaria.

 

Ceesay hopes that creating such fashionable and insect-repelling items will inspire others to integrate this nanotechnology into their own clothing and mosquito nets.

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This bodysuit is one of six items in Ceesay’s current collection. Her current fashion collection aims to ‘explore and modernize traditional African silhouettes and textiles by embracing the strength and sexuality of the modern woman’.

 

It is incredible to be able to protect from malaria, all while creating modern and flattering clothing items.

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The scientist working on this project, Ochanda, is himself motivated by helping minimize the effects of malaria on people in Africa. He believes that science’s long-term goal is to help as many people as possible, and this is why this project is so fulfilling in his eyes.

 

For the future, he is thinking of modernizing his fabric even more by making it light sensitive. His idea is to create a fabric which will release repellent based on changes in light, and hence release more repellent at dawn and night when mosquitoes are most active.

 

At the minimum, they hope that this new technology will be applied to bed-nets to create a longer-lasting protection.