However, these natural dark cycles are rapidly changing because people are increasingly using artificial light. Nearly 80% of the world’s people now live under artificially lit skies.
So, what impact might such artificial light use have on malaria?
Altering mosquito biology
The Anopheles group of mosquitoes, which is responsible for all of Africa’s malaria cases, is a nocturnal feeder. After mating, the females will seek out a blood meal. In doing so, they transfer the Plasmodium parasite which causes malaria. This is why bed nets are so effective when used correctly – they block bites when people are sleeping at night.
Emerging research, including my own, argues how artificial light at night can change mosquitoes’ behaviour.
This is because the artificial light used in homes can alter mosquito biology. For example, a short pulse of Light Emitting Diode (LED) light, commonly used lights in homes as “downlights” or reading lamps, can delay the onset of biting by hours in Anopheles, and so reduce biting rates and malaria transfer. The light essentially tricks the mosquitoes into not feeding.
These ideas are promising. But strategies to control vectors don’t always work at a bigger scale, especially if those strategies are not properly applied. For instance, bed nets treated with mosquito repellents are sometimes used as fishing nets in parts of Africa. Demonstrating the effects of artificial light in controlled laboratory settings is one thing, but rolling out their use as an effective vector control strategy is quite another.
Even if governments could easily get LED lights into many homes to guard against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, there might be unintended consequences for human health. A burgeoning body of research is examining the effects of artificial light on human health. Early indications are that it can have negative impacts like disrupted sleep.
A growing body of research
Overall, it is not yet clear how artificial lights might be used to lessen the risk of malaria infections. But the growing body of work on this issue suggests that it’s a concept which needs more attention from the World Health Organization and other groups.
Once the impacts of artificial light use are more fully understood, developmental planners across Africa might be able to ensure that lights of the correct kinds, used in optimal places and times, become part of the continent’s efforts to control malaria.
Bernard Coetzee: Senior lecturer, University of Pretoria
This article was first published in The Conversation