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The parable of the mosquito-slaying tennis racket

Published Oct 22, 2011 11:16am

—Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

The email’s subject line caught my eye immediately: “Solution for Dengue Mosquito.”  Intrigued, I opened the message. Then I chortled – and concluded that I had clicked upon something ripe for satire.

The email was an advertisement, sponsored by Home Mart Pakistan, for a “3 in 1 Rechargeable Mosquito Killer Racket.” (What the “3 in 1” referred to was unclear). Dominating the ad was a large photo of said racket, which apparently zaps mosquitoes to death upon contact. To the right was another photo — one of a broad-shouldered, stylish, mustached young man. He was brandishing the racket, his eyes trained intently on his arthropod prey. “Lightweight, convenient and easy to carry,” promised the ad. “Environmentally friendly.” And “only” Rs 750.

Eradicate an epidemic — one that has infected 12,000 Pakistanis and claimed more than 200 lives — with a tennis racket? How silly, I scoffed.

Until, upon further reflection, I realised that it all makes perfect sense.

Consider what the experts are recommending Pakistan do to stem the spread of dengue fever. They are advocating for “evidence-based interventions” and “vector control,” and asking us to put our faith in a vaccine — which is years away from fruition. They are also calling for improved hygiene and sanitation, and better management of public infrastructure development and population growth.

These are perfectly reasonable policies — yet they are also mostly long-term and expensive ones, and will not ease the plight of those convulsed by dengue fever right now. So what will? Basic preventive measures — such as equipping individuals with the right tools to keep infected mosquitoes at bay. Recall that one of the most potent weapons against malaria — the only mosquito-borne infection more globally prevalent than dengue — is not a vaccine, sanitation upgrade, or public infrastructure success. Rather, it is a simple anti-malarial net. Health experts estimate that these nets can reduce child mortality by 20 per cent. Clearly, it pays to think small — and in terms of that “lightweight” mosquito-obliterating racket.

Clichés may be tiresome, yet they are unfailingly freighted with the truth. When it comes to public policy, small is indeed beautiful — or at least cheaper and more efficacious than large. Erecting big school buildings in Pakistan will mean nothing in the absence of incentives for poor families to send their children (and particularly girls) to these new structures. Constructing hulking new urban sanitation facilities is important, yet distributing water purification tablets will pay more immediate dividends — and when 630 Pakistani children die every day from the waterborne illness of diarrhea, immediacy is of the essence.

Immense dams, barrages, and canals may have made the Indus Basin a technological marvel and the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. Yet they have fallen on hard times. Rusting and dilapidated, they often leak more water than they store or transport. So why the immediate tendency to indulge nationalistic impulses (or to tug on the heartstrings of provincial pride), and build new big dams or water-hemorrhaging monuments such as the infamous Karachi Port Trust super-fountain? Instead, why not give more thought to undertaking relatively modest repairs of existing pipes and canals?

Indeed, over the last few years, the statistic I have invoked more than any other about Pakistan has little to do with terrorism or textiles, or mangos or mistrust of America — rather, it relates to canal repair. Seventy-six million acre feet of water would be generated by repairing Pakistan’s existing canal systems, according to Simi Kamal — more than the quantum of water projected to be made available by an operational Diamer-Bhasha Dam.

In the context of natural resources, more is not always better. So instead of flooding out farmland with traditional, water-intensive irrigation, why not encourage water-saving drip irrigation? Rather than calling for more crop production, why not build a few properly climatised warehouses to keep existing fresh produce from rotting?

To be sure, swatting at a mosquito with a tennis racket will not do for dengue fever what Jonas Salk’s ingenuity did for polio. Yet in an era of fiscal constraints and a raft of competing public health emergencies (including malnutrition, polio, and the latest floods to afflict Pakistan), individual prevention efforts will need to remain a default strategy.

However, this is one default option that has considerable merit. Home Mart Pakistan has produced a winner. And at Rs 750, it is a veritable bargain compared to the millions necessary for vaccine research and other more well-intentioned yet long-term measures that cannot alleviate the immediate crisis.

Michael Kugelman is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.