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The color blue is saving lives

Flickr: IAEA Imagebank

I’ve met some people who HATE flies. The incessant buzzing drives them crazy and they’ll do almost anything to swat the offending creature into submission. But in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, flies are more than a nuisance– they can be a matter of life or death.

For example, Uganda’s West Nile region is home to tsetse flies, a species of insect known to infect humans and cattle with its parasitic bite. If infected, the host will contract sleeping sickness, an illness that starts with vague symptoms (like headaches, joint pain, and fevers) and ends pretty severely (I’m talking about intense mood swings, confusion, and only being able to sleep during the daytime).

Sleeping sickness can be treated with medicine if detected early enough, however individuals in rural communities often lack access to local medical care even if they recognize the onset of the disease.

Luckily, tsetse flies have an unexpected weakness– they are extremely attracted to the color blue. Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found a way to exploit this vulnerability by designing the ultimate tsetse flytrap.

These innovative traps consist of a piece of blue fabric and a panel of netting covered with insecticide hung between two poles. After installing 17,500 of these traps throughout Uganda, the country’s tsetse fly population has already decreased by 90%.

Dr. Charles Womboga of Uganda’s Ministry of health notes the effectiveness of these new traps. “Already there are fewer cases [of sleeping sickness] than there used to be. And if we keep it up, I think we can do it– we can eliminate this terrible disease.”

The blue traps aren’t perfect because they require replacement twice a year and they can’t survive heavy rainfall or flooding. However, at a cost of $240 USD per square mile of coverage, these cloth traps are more economical (and environmentally friendly) than spraying insecticides far and wide.

The health of rural communities and their livestock can be significantly improved by installing these simple traps. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel the least bit blue about this colorful strategy to eradicate sleeping sickness.