This incredibly simple technology is saving 12,000 lives a year

The world’s first malaria vaccine just got the green light for distribution in sub-Saharan Africa, marking a monumental shift in how people stay protected from disease-carrying mosquitoes. But it won’t see a rollout until 2017, leaving millions still need in need of protection.

It’s a good thing we have bed nets.

Insecticide-treated bed nets are the simplest and cheapest way a person can avoid contracting any of the handful of diseases carried by mosquitoes, including malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever, and yellow fever. They’re made of inexpensive mesh, laced with chemicals lethal to mosquitoes, that drape over children’s beds to keep the insects at bay.

UNICEF estimates bed nets can reduce child mortality by 20% each year. For every 1,000 kids who use them correctly, approximately six lives will be saved. That may seem low, but consider that not every child who uses a bed net would have gotten malaria. Nor does every bed net work 100% of the time.

Given the best estimates available, which state that malaria kills between 600,000 and 2 million people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, we can reasonably expect that bed nets save upward of 12,000 lives a year.

According to GiveWell, a nonprofit charity evaluator that sifts through mountains of data to determine where people’s dollars are best put to use, the Against Malaria Foundation wins hands down. Bed nets are the chief reason why.

In the two countries where AMF does the majority of its work, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the cost per bed net hovers around $US5.30 and $US7.50, respectively. For donors, GiveWell figures the cost per disability-adjusted life year — a measure of how far a donation goes to keeping someone alive one extra year — is somewhere around $US40.

To save a life, factoring in overhead costs and product waste, the total is just $US3,340.

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