Fresh Signs of Mosquito Insecticide Resistance in South Africa

Jerri-Lynn here. In 2003, during a birding trip to South Africa, our guide, Martin, stopped to pay his respects at a memorial to another guide, who’d succumbed, suddenly, to cerebra; malaria at the age of 28. Malaria is an occupational hazard for wildlife guides, especially birding guides, who spend lots of time in wetlands and other places where mosquitoes are prevalent.

Tourists and short-term visitors can take malaria prophylaxis. But there are problems with each of the major options, and residents and long-term visitors usually don’t bother. During our trip, my husband and I didn’t rely on drugs alone – IIRC, we took malarone – to reduce our malaria risk.  Before the trip, we’d treated the clothes we planned to wear while birding – including our socks and sun hats – with permethrin. While birding, we smeared lots of mosquito repellent on exposed skin.

South Africa could soon join the list of countries that have relegated malaria to history – although this post highlights the worrying possibility that a spike in malaria cases might soon occur, as a consequence of insecticide resistance. The authors warn against complacency.

This post is a reminder that covid-19 isn’t the only disease plaguing Africa. And while South Africa has made great strides in malaria control, alas, in many other African countries, the disease is still prevalent. I’ve posted before about ongoing malaria control efforts, including launch of a promising vaccine. But the fight against this disease is far from won.

By Shüné Oliver, Medical scientist, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Basil Brooke, Associate Professor at the Wits Research Institute for Malaria in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, and Givemore Munhenga, Senior Medical Scientist, National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Originally published at The Conversation

Most South Africans aren’t worried about malaria even though the disease is endemic in the country. Four of the country’s nine provinces carry malaria risk while 10% of the population is at risk of contracting malaria.

The lack of concern can be attributed to the fact that the country has a relatively low burden of the disease. In 2020, South Africa had 8,126 cases and 38 deaths. This is low when compared to the estimated 10,007,802 cases and 23,766 deathsin Mozambique during the same period.

The low number of cases means that South Africa is a candidate for malaria elimination. To reach this goal the country would need to record no new infections for three years. This goal has recently been achieved by China and El Salvador in 2021, and Argentina and Algeria in 2019.

The region in South Africa most likely to achieve this status is KwaZulu-Natal where the incidence rate is very low. But there are threats to achieving the goal.

In a recent paper we set out our findings on malaria in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. We found that certain species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes showed resistance to insecticides. Though the resistance levels are low, they nevertheless point to a potentially worrying trend.

This is not the first time that insecticide resistance has been reported in the province. Monitoring resistance is important because it gives an early warning sign of coming danger. The loss of insecticide efficacy can be a major blow to malaria control efforts.

Levels of malaria incidence can change very quickly. This was the case during a epidemic between 1996-2000 which was caused by a combination of insecticide resistance and anti-malarial drug resistance.

Insecticide resistance is a growing threat to malaria control efforts globally. In South Africa, indoor residual spraying is the cornerstone of the malaria elimination efforts. Hence, it is important to keep a close eye on vector mosquito populations in affected areas.

A concerted effort on the part of the government ensured that malaria infection rates were brought down again. Our research suggests there needs to be extra vigilance to ensure there isn’t another spike.


Our research was done as part of ongoing malaria surveillance in the country. Malaria surveillance is essential for provincial control and elimination programmes. These surveillance activities include collecting mosquitoes, identifying them and testing their sensitivity to insecticides. The aim is to provide important information on vector mosquito populations in affected areas, such as their feeding, breeding and resting behaviours and their susceptibilities to insecticide.

In our paper we looked at Anopheles with special emphasis on Anopheles arabiensis, which is the primary vector of malaria in the northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.

We collected Anopheles specimens from Mamfene, Jozini, northern KwaZulu-Natal between November 2019 and April 2021. We conducted standard insecticide susceptibility tests. These showed resistance to DDT, permethrin, deltamethrin, and bendiocarb, as well as full susceptibility to pirimiphos-methyl. These are classes of insecticides that are approved for indoor residual spraying.

The levels of resistance we detected are still low, with an average survival rate of 12%. But they’re nevertheless concerning.

If insecticide resistance becomes widespread it can result in operational failure. This would mean that the current insecticide-based mosquito control strategies would not be effective. This, in turn, can lead to mosquito numbers growing as parasite densities increase.

It is, therefore, essential that control is maintained and strengthened by adopting suitable strategies to prevent the development of insecticide resistance.

South Africa is aware of the problem, which is why it has adopted malaria control programmes that use at least two different insecticides in a mosaic spraying pattern. This approach has proved highly successful. This is like using a multi-drug approach to combat resistance in bacteria and viruses. It will slow down the development of insecticide resistance compared to using a single insecticide.

No time for complacency

South Africa’s low number of cases mean that the country is a candidate for malaria elimination. But this is not the time for complacency. The spike in malaria cases in South Africa in 2017shows how quickly the progress can be undone.

Various countries have relegated malaria to history. China is the latest country to achieve this, which is significant due to the size of its population and geographical area.

South Africa could join this list, with KwaZulu-Natal province at the forefront of the charge towards elimination. Yet, the province is also a reminder of what could happen if the country lets its guard down.

Malaria is a dynamic disease, and mosquitoes do not respect borders. The epidemics of 1996-2000 and the spike in cases in 2017 should be a stark warning of what can happen, especially if complacency steps in.

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  1. Thuto

    Thank you for this post, I hope the recent floods in KZN won’t slow down efforts in this direction.

    1. MarkT

      The recent floods were indicative of “the tropics” moving south.

      If I understand correctly, RSMC La Reunion (the official tropical cyclone warning centre for the area) named the system because it was tropical in nature, despite lying outside the geographical tropics when it formed. It was therefore a meteorological “tropical storm” lying outside the geographic tropics. In the Southwest Pacific basin, this terminology is not used and it would be a “tropical cyclone” that developed outside the tropics.

      If the southward expansion of tropical air masses means an extension of the range of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, then this may be problematic.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Was once in KwaZululand and it is hard to imagine them having to contend with malaria. I would have thought that the altitude would have worked against it. This is the thing that drives me nuts. The cost of eliminating such diseases is not fantastic and yet there is not the world-wide political will to do so. Not unless it effects the world economy that is. And yet a week ago, world military spending for the first time exceeded $2 trillion. What a waste. If we could get military spending down to where it was in the 90s, we could use the difference to put paid to a lot of these diseases, even if they are evolving as we wipe them out-

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      When I lived in England during the Thatcher years, several people I knew organized a sponsored fast to benefit a sister village in Nicaragua.I admit at the time I thought this was a gimmick, a form of virtue signalling. I didn’t fast, but I supported the fasters anyway, and I also got involved in organizing some demos.

      Anyway, the fasting raised 10,000 quid – which at that time was about US$10,000. When I learned what that money paid for in Nicaragua -a new water system, books, a whole list of things, I was rather abashed. That fasting helped make things a bit better for those villagers. And once all their basic needs were met, the villagers asked if they could use the last wee bit of the money to buy two guitars. For entertainment. Sure! Knock yourselves out.

      Just think if rather than funding the contras, the Reagan administration had devoted money to water systems, books, and guitars. What a world that could be!

  3. Synoia

    Because much of South Africa’s population lives outside the tropics (The Cape), or in the Highveldt (Joburg and Pretoria) comparing with Mozambique (Mostly low level and in the Tropics) Comparisons between these two Countries are suspect.

    The Malaria carrying mosquito has a flight ceiling of about 3,000 ft. Thus No malaria in the Highveldt, which starts west of Petermaritzburg and continues west to Namibia. If I recall correctly, little of Mozambique is in the Highveldt.

    The Kruger park is in the lowfeldt, and malaria ridden.

    In addition, sickle cell anemia is a tropical adaptation which defeats malaria, but brings its own problems.

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