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Ward off malaria -- and look sexy doing it

Cornell University scientists tell infectious disease to buzz off with hooded garment infused with strong doses of insecticide.

Matilda Ceesay, a Cornell fiber science and apparel design major from Gambia, adjusts the anti-malarial garment on model Sandy Mattei. Who knew mosquito nets could be so fashionable? Cornell University

Malaria nets don't generally grace the pages of Vogue. But that could change, thanks to a couple of inventive Cornell University scientists.

The two, both from Africa, have created a hooded garment embedded with insecticide to ward off mosquitoes infected with malaria, a preventable and curable infectious disease that kills more than 650,000 people a year on the continent, according to the World Health Organization.

Cornell University

The getup consists of a colorful hand-dyed one-piece bodysuit and a mesh cape and hood. While nets treated with insecticide are a common, cost-effective prevention tool in Africa, the Cornellians say their garment can be worn during the day for extra protection. Plus, their fabric's mosquito-repellant properties are extra strong and long-lasting.

"The bond on our fabric is very difficult to break," said Frederick Ochanda, a postdoctoral associate in fiber science and apparel design (FSAD) in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "The nets in use now are dipped in a solution and not bonded in this way, so their effectiveness doesn't last very long."

Ochanda, a native of Kenya, collaborated with Matilda Ceesay, an FSAD apparel design major from Gambia, to bind the repellent methyl parathion to cotton fabric at the nanolevel using clustered crystalline compounds called metal organic framework (MOF) molecules. They say their mesh fabric can hold up to three times more insecticide than normal fibrous nets, which usually lose their insect-repellant capabilities after about six months.

A model wearing the garment sashayed down the runway last month at the Cornell Fashion Collective's spring fashion show. The outfit was part Ceesay's larger "njehringe" collection, which reflects her African heritage, and, she says, "explores and modernizes traditional African silhouettes and textiles by embracing the strength and sexuality of the modern woman."

While a couple of Facebook commenters viewing the above photo note that mosquitoes can bite through tights, it should be stressed that Ceesay and Ochanda's anti-malaria ensemble is not a completed outfit on store racks but a prototype they hope will drive new technologies for fighting malaria's spread. Both have family members who have suffered from the disease.

On the horizon, Ochanda said, is an MOF fabric that releases repellant in response to changes in temperature or light, offering wearers more protection at night. At the very least, they hope the technology can be used to create longer-lasting repellant-infused nets, though some researchers now worry that Malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Africa and India are becoming resistant to insecticides.

"We can't get complacent," Ceesay said. "I hope my design can show what is possible when you bring together fashion and science and will inspire others to keep improving the technology."