The ongoing battle against malaria has sparked a somewhat unconventional, if not creative partnership that saw the fruits displayed on the runway at the Cornwell Fashion Collective Spring Fashion Show in April 2012.
An African fashion designer and Cornell University scientist pooled their respective expertise, creativity, experience and a common brush with a dreaded disease to create a functionally fashionable garment. Their hooded bodysuit is embedded at the molecular level with insecticides for warding off mosquitoes infected with malaria, a disease estimated to kill 655,000 people annually in Africa.
Though insecticide-treated nets are commonly used to drive away mosquitoes from African homes, the Cornell prototype garment can be worn throughout the day to provide extra protection and does not dissipate easily like skin-based repellants. By binding repellant and fabric at the nanolevel using metal organic framework molecules – which are clustered crystalline compounds – the mesh fabric can be loaded with up to three times more insecticide than normal fibrous nets, which usually wear off after about six months.
"The bond on our fabric is very difficult to break," said Frederick Ochanda, postdoctoral associate in Cornell's Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design and a native of Kenya. "The nets in use now are dipped in a solution and not bonded in this way, so their effectiveness doesn't last very long."
The colorful garment, fashioned by Matilda Ceesay, a Cornell apparel design undergraduate from Gambia, debuted on the runway at the Cornell Fashion Collective spring fashion show April 28 on the Cornell campus. It consists of an underlying one-piece body suit, hand-dyed in vibrant hues of purple, gold and blue, and a mesh hood and cape containing the repellant. The outfit is one of six in Ceesay's collection, which she said "explores and modernizes traditional African silhouettes and textiles by embracing the strength and sexuality of the modern woman."
Ochanda and Ceesay, from opposite sides of the continent, both have watched family members suffer from the disease. Ceesay recalls a family member who was ailing and subsequently died after doctors treated her for malaria when she had a different sickness. "It's so common back home, you can't escape it," Ceesay said.
Ultimately, Ceesay and Ochanda hope the outfit they developed will serve as a prototype to drive new technologies for fighting the spread of malaria. On the horizon, Ochanda said, is a fabric that releases repellant in response to changes in temperature or light – offering wearers more protection at night when mosquitoes are on the hunt. At minimum, they hope the technology can be applied to create longer-lasting insecticide-laden bed nets.