Science, Tech & Environment

Could reading a newspaper save you from dengue fever?

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Credit: Philip Brown/Reuters

A Sri Lankan man reads the newspaper. People in Sri Lanka are most likely to read the paper in the mornings and evenings, the same times that disease-carrying mosquitoes come out to bite.

Newspapers aren't in great health these days, but could reading one now keep you healthy instead?

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

That's the hope of a recent experiment in Sri Lanka. During National Dengue Week in April, the Sri Lankan daily newspaper Mawbima partnered with Leo Burnett, an advertising agency, on a campaign to fight dengue fever.

Dengue is a sometimes-fatal disease that infects about 50 million people a year, mostly in tropical and sub-tropical countries. There's no vaccine, and more than 12,000 Sri Lankans have already died from dengue fever this year.

The disease is carried by mosquitoes, which are most likely to bite at the same time as Sri Lankans sit down to read the morning and evening papers. So Mawbima decided to print copies using ink infused with citronella, a natural insect repellent. 

The copies went out on April 7, World Health Day. At peak biting hours, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans were holding big bug-repelling shields.

So does the newspaper stunt really have something to offer in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases?

"Unless you stuffed your pockets with these citronella papers, [the effect] wouldn't last very long," says Dr. Chris Plowe, a malaria researcher at the University of Maryland. "You might have to wrap yourself up in the newspaper to have it be very effective."

But other similarly low-tech, low-cost products — like the bed nets used in many African countries — have produced big results in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases. That's because mosquitoes in different areas of the world act differently. "Mosquitoes don't all behave the same," Plowe explains.

In Africa, mosquitoes carrying malaria tend to bite in the evenings and in homes, which means insecticide-treated bed netting is highly effective in reducing malaria deaths. But in southeast Asia, mosquitoes populate the forests and bite during the day, so the risk for people who work there is different.

Plowe is focusing his own efforts on developing vaccines for mosquito-borne diseases. "A vaccine may be very expensive to develop," he says, "but if you do a cost-benefit analysis, vaccines are one of the most high-impact and most-cost effective public health interventions."

People who are immunized can also avoid having to remember to do a daily action in order to stay safe, such as taking a pill — or buying a newspaper. Still, Plowe didn't dismiss the value of the bug-fighting newspaper stunt. "Perhaps it's most effective as a way to educate people about these diseases," he says.

And it certainly had at least one positive outcome: sales of the paper on that day were up by 30 percent.

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