Poverty and food security: Drivers of insecticide-treated mosquito net misuse in Malawi

Sara Berthe, Steven A. Harvey, Matthew Lynch, Hannah Koenker, Vincent Jumbe, Blessings Kaunda-Khangamwa, Don P. Mathanga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background: Over the past decade, food insecurity, connected to erratic rains and reduced agricultural outputs, has plagued Malawi. Many households are turning to fishing to seek additional sources of income and food. There is anecdotal evidence that insecticide-treated net (ITN) recipients in Malawi are using their nets for purposes other than sleeping, such as for fishing, protecting crops, and displaying merchandise, among others. The objective of this qualitative study was to explore the factors leading residents of waterside communities in Malawi to use ITNs for fishing. Methods: This study used qualitative and observational methods. Five waterside communities were identified, two each in the North, Central and Southern regions, representing a mix of lakeside and riverside settings. Fifteen focus group discussions were conducted with a total of 146 participants, including men, women, and community leaders. Results: Respondents stated that they knew that ITNs should be slept under to protect from malaria. Respondents discussed financial hardships their communities were facing due to droughts, poverty, food scarcity, unemployment, and devaluation of the Malawian currency, the kwacha. Many described selling household goods, including clothes and cooking pots, to generate short-term income for their family. Though no respondents admitted to selling an ITN themselves, the practice was commonly known. Participants said that food shortages were forcing them to make difficult choices. Fishing with ITNs was reported to be common in the study sites, as a response to food insecurity, and was widely understood to be harmful over the longer term. Respondents felt that it was everyone's responsibility to cut down on this practice, but that efforts to confiscate or burn nets and boats of those caught fishing with ITNs were counter-productive since boats, especially, were a required resource for a productive livelihood. Respondents feared that if the health workers, government officials and donors continued to see ITNs being misused for fishing, the distribution of free ITNs would end, which would worsen malaria in their communities. Conclusions: Faced with economic hardships and food security crises, participants reported being forced to look for alternative incomes to feed their families. This sometimes included selling or repurposing their belongings, including ITNs, for income. This issue is complex and will require a community-led multisectoral response to preserve health, fisheries, and livelihoods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number320
JournalMalaria journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 18 2019


  • Fishing
  • Food security
  • ITN
  • Lake Malawi
  • Malawi
  • Misuse
  • Poverty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Infectious Diseases


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