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A House Paint Reduces Bug-Borne Diseases

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A Spanish company fights malaria with pesticides in house paint

By Nick Leiber
     May 17 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- For decades, nets and
sprays have been the only effective methods for controlling the
mosquitoes that cause malaria and dengue. Pilar Mateo thinks she
can do better. The Spanish chemist has invented a way to embed
pesticides in microcapsules stirred into house paints at her
Valencia company, Inesfly. The insecticides are released from the
paint slowly, remaining effective for two to four years, while
sprays typically need to be reapplied at least every six months.
“The paint acts like a vaccine for houses and buildings,” she
says.
     Mateo says she’s received offers to buy her patent but
refuses to sell out. Instead, her new venture, Inesfly Africa,
will produce it commercially at a €10 million ($13 million)
factory in Ghana. After years of donating paint to poor people in
Latin America and Africa, Mateo wants the venture to fund her
broader humanitarian efforts. “It’s not just the insects that are
the problem,” she says. “It’s the poverty.”
     The minute amounts of pesticides released from the paint
aren’t harmful to people but are devastating to insects,
according to independent tests by scientists. The paint is
already approved for use in 15 countries, including China,
Germany, and Spain. Mateo is seeking approval in the U.S. and a
recommendation from the World Health Organization. Her idea is to
sell it as an affordable alternative to sprays. “It makes sense,”
says Adriana Costero-Saint Denis, a program officer at the
National Institutes of Health. “You want something that has slow
release, which is effective for a long period.”
     Mateo didn’t plan to spend her life killing bugs. While
earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Universitat de València,
she settled into a comfortable routine, tinkering with formulas
at her father’s paint factory, Industrias Químicas Inesba. In
1988, inspired by a newspaper article about a local hospital
overrun by cockroaches, she shifted to pest control and developed
her microencapsulation technology, patenting it in 1996. A
Bolivian doctor visiting Valencia contacted Mateo and asked her
if it might work to combat vinchucas , bloodsucking insects found
across Latin America that transmit a nasty parasitic disease
called Chagas.
     Mateo had never heard of Chagas, which can cause heart
failure and other cardiac or intestinal complications. In 1998,
Mateo traveled to Bolivia to test her technology, a visit that
morphed into an ongoing love affair with the country. She divides
her time living with indigenous peoples in Bolivia’s forests,
building and painting houses, and conducting research in her lab
in Valencia. “We spend all this time talking about medicines and
diseases when the primary problem for half the planet is that
their homes are sick,” she says.
     Using roughly $6 million of her family’s money and
$12 million in grants from nonprofits, Mateo has done research,
created educational programs about hygiene, and helped paint more
than 8,000 homes in Latin America and Africa. After the former
Bolivian health minister tried to rescind the country’s approval
of the paint, locals protested. President Evo Morales in November
invited Mateo to his office, and the Andean nation again allowed
the paint.
     Health authorities are increasingly receptive to
technologies that can overcome resistance bugs build up to
insecticides, says S. Patrick Kachur, chief of the malaria branch
of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Mateo’s formula helps slow the development of resistance because
the paint is packed with multiple pesticides, which she buys from
big companies such as BASF, Bayer, and Dow AgroSciences.
Traditional sprays typically hold just one formula because mixing
them could render them ineffective; the microcapsules keep
ingredients from interacting. Most important, the microcapsules
reduce the quantities of insecticides needed.
     Tom McLean, chief operating officer of the Innovative Vector
Control Consortium in Liverpool, a group funded by the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation to control parasitic diseases, says it
has been a challenge to get insecticide makers to invest in
fighting public health problems caused by insects because the
returns are relatively meager. The market for pesticides to
combat malaria and dengue “is much smaller, for example, than the
market for golf greens,” says McLean. “Insecticide companies have
struggled to make the finances and R&D in [pest] control really
work.”
     Mateo is planning to launch a U.S. partnership to make and
distribute the paint. A tinkerer whose husband says she often
dreams up projects in the middle of the night, Mateo is also
unveiling an insecticide-free lice-killing shampoo in Europe. Her
new partnership in Accra plans to employ 500 workers in Ghana and
sell the paint around the world. “By taking production outside
Spain … we can reduce the cost and make it more accessible,” says
Alejandro Pons, chief executive officer of the Ghanaian venture.
“It will cost the same as normal paint but will mean you don’t
get malaria.”

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