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African scientist, designer partner to fashion anti-malaria garment that wards off bugs

A Cornell University scientist and designer from Africa have together created a fashionable hooded bodysuit embedded at the molecular level with insecticides for warding off mosquitoes infected with malaria, a disease estimated to kill 655,000 people annually on the continent.

Though insecticide-treated nets are commonly used to drive away mosquitoes from African homes, the Cornell prototype garment can be worn throughout the day to provide extra protection and does not dissipate easily like skin-based repellants.

Sandy Mattei models a design by Matilda Ceesay, a Cornell apparel design major from Gambia, at the Cornell Fashion Collective Runway Show, April 28.
Credit: Mark Vorreuter

By binding repellant and fabric at the nanolevel using metal organic framework molecules - which are clustered crystalline compounds - the mesh fabric can be loaded with up to three times more insecticide than normal fibrous nets, which usually wear off after about six months.

"The bond on our fabric is very difficult to break," said Frederick Ochanda, postdoctoral associate in Cornell's Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design and a native of Kenya. "The nets in use now are dipped in a solution and not bonded in this way, so their effectiveness doesn't last very long."

The colorful garment, fashioned by Matilda Ceesay, a Cornell apparel design undergraduate from Gambia, debuted on the runway at the Cornell Fashion Collective spring fashion show April 28 on the Cornell campus. It consists of an underlying one-piece body suit, hand-dyed in vibrant hues of purple, gold and blue, and a mesh hood and cape containing the repellant. The outfit is one of six in Ceesay's collection, which she said "explores and modernizes traditional African silhouettes and textiles by embracing the strength and sexuality of the modern woman."

Ochanda and Ceesay, from opposite sides of the continent, both have watched family members suffer from the disease. Ceesay recalls a family member who was ailing and subsequently died after doctors treated her for malaria when she had a different sickness. "It's so common back home, you can't escape it," Ceesay said.

"Seeing malaria's effect on people in Kenya, it's very important for me to apply fiber science to help this problem," Ochanda added. "A long-term goal of science is to be able to come up with solutions to help protect human health and life, so this project is very fulfilling for me."

Ultimately, Ceesay and Ochanda hope the outfit they developed will serve as a prototype to drive new technologies for fighting the spread of malaria. On the horizon, Ochanda said, is a fabric that releases repellant in response to changes in temperature or light – offering wearers more protection at night when mosquitoes are on the hunt. At minimum, they hope the technology can be applied to create longer-lasting insecticide-laden bed nets.

"Although there are already mosquito nets being used, the solution isn't foolproof," Ceesay said. "People are still getting sick and dying. We can't get complacent. I hope my design can show what is possible when you bring together fashion and science and will inspire others to keep improving the technology. If a student at Cornell can do this, imagine how far it could go."

Syl Kacapyr | EurekAlert!
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