I am looking at a small village. It’s about 70 feet on a side, complete with a variety of mud and brick homes, trees, grasses, and dozens of mosquitoes. And a technician with a slew of interesting gadgets.
Oh, and no people.
This “village” is actually a mock-up; a to-scale version inside a greenhouse (itself a massive 700 square meters) on the grounds of the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health (TTCIH) in Ifakara, Tanzania. Folks, this place is an international nexus for malaria research. Not only do they know almost everything there is to know about Plasmodium falciparum, the scientists here have nearly three decades of longitudinal (and latitudinal?) data about mosquitoes. They know when they feed, how, what direction they face, and which condiments they employ when taking a blood meal. I visited a room where technicians were breeding mosquitoes by the thousands.
They study things here that I would have never thought of. In the greenhouse, I watched two technicians pouring water from one little vial into another, placing it in a machine, and recording a number. I asked “Unefanya nini? (What are you doing?)” and they responded, “Measuring the feces.” I didn’t immediately connect the word “feces” with excrement – I assumed that it was a Kiswahili word that I had misheard. I asked for clarification.
The technicians capture mosquitoes from the mock village or other testing areas and segregate them. They then allow them to digest their meals and excrete. After applying a solution of lithium carbonate, which effectively stains the feces brown, the technicians measure them. The weight of the feces determines what kind of blood meal (human or animal) the mosquito has taken.
Mosquito poop aside, TTCIH is making, and has made, some serious strides in the fight against malaria. My team is considerably lucky to be learning alongside the scientists and researchers here in Ifakara.