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Janaki Blum for SARID, October 16, 2006

Experience tells us that preventing the bite is the key – scientifically and cost-effectively - to warding off the 70 or more insect-borne illnesses, such as malaria, dengue fever & encephalitis, that plague the planet, particularly between the tropics.

Now, a young Paraguayan company says it can do just that through its recently launched line of shirts that are impregnated with a natural mosquito repellant. The marketers claim that the fabric will withstand up to 40 washings without losing its power to hold off insects.

The woven cotton shirts, of traditional though exclusive design, are steeped in lemon-scented citronella oil, a widely used insect repellent that is activated by friction. The fiber oil is extracted from a perfumed grass that grows abundantly in Paraguay. Citronella’s distinctive aroma is pleasant to humans, but repulsive to mosquitoes and other insects such as fleas, thus driving them away.

The shirt is the result of several years of collaboration between the sport-inspired company Pombero and Paraguay’s non-profit Moisés Bertoni Foundation for the Conservation of Nature. The impregnated-cotton fabric is manufactured by the largest textile company in Paraguay, Manufactura de Pilar SA. It appears to be a successful profit/non-profit venture.

The Paraguayan National Service for Malaria Eradication, however, is cautious about the new fabric’s effectiveness and would like more research, especially to see if it affords extra protection against the mosquito-transmitted diseases malaria and dengue than conventional dermal repellants

Even if proven effective, the shirt, which retails at US$ 50 - double the cost of an untreated Pombero shirt - are beyond the means of many Paraguayans, more than one third of whom live below the poverty line. More affluent individuals would also be hard-pressed to buy this particular shirt. Additionally, the impregnation would not survive a year (at one wash per week). So who will buy it?

The shirt appears to be targeted towards the lucrative US travel & sports apparel market, where insect repellent clothing, coated with the chrysanthemum-derived compound permethrin and first developed by the US military, has long been in use. Pombero entered the garment arena only three years ago to supply various US brands, but now hopes to market articles under its own name. It also appears to dabble in adventure- and eco-tourism, activities that might generate foreign exchange and local income, but are necessarily limited if their claims to environment-friendliness is to be maintained.

This marketing exercise is instructive for other developing countries. Much research effort and scarce funding has been directed, ostensibly with the best of intentions, to develop a gimmick to support individual gain rather than to discover real medical solutions that poor populations desperately need.


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