Insect Repellent Nets in South America: Protection from Mosquitoes Carrying Malaria

Interview with Steve Baker of Rotary Club International / Rotarians Against Malaria

As a philanthropist working to prevent malaria by bringing insect repellent bed nets to indigenous people in the jungles of South America, Steve Baker has a unique connection to Insect Shield. He is currently working on two projects with support from Rotary Club International, one in Venezuela and one in Peru.

Rotarians Against Malaria Global (RAM-Gobal) is the Rotary Action Group that fights malaria around the world

Malaria Partners International is a Rotarian led NGO that works on malaria in Africa. They work closely with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and received generous funding to support anti-malaria projects.

One of Malaria Partners International’s early projects evolved into the Rotary Club's first “Project of Scale”: Inaugural Programs of Scale Grant Honors Those Leading Malaria Treatment Efforts in Zambia

Flyer 1
Flyer 1

Mosquiteros for Cacuri  Is an excerpt from a longer video made to document an expedition to Cacuri on the Rio Alto Ventuari in Venezuela. The video shows the distribution of some of the nets from the 2,000 units that Insect Shield treated. 

No Bite, No Malaria talks about another Rotary project to distribute bed nets in Venezuela.

Steve is wearing Insect Shield clothing in both of these YouTube videos.

Shop mosquito repellent nets

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Transcript of the Interview

Mark McLaren at Insect Shield

All right, we're here with Steve Baker, who is with the Rotary Club of Key Biscayne. He's got a really interesting history and connection to Insect Shield. He's done a lot of work in South America, helping to bring insect repellent netting to the indigenous people there. So we just want to take the opportunity to welcome him to our blog. Steve, why don't you tell us a little bit about the beginning of your experience? You've been involved in the outdoors and travel for a long time. You're a native of Toronto, Canada, I think, is that right? 

Steve Baker

Yes. Well, Mark. I was born in Toronto and raised there. And one of the things about being Canadian and, and having close access to the wilderness is that if you are lucky as I was, and get some training young, you can really have wilderness experiences throughout your life. And that's, that's exactly what happened for me. 

When I was about eight years old, my parents sent me away to a summer camp that specialized in teaching kids how to survive in the bush and I learned how to paddle and I learned how to light a fire and boil water and pitch a tent and all kinds of stuff. And that those lessons stuck with me and I use them I have used them throughout my life and built on, on that platform to understand how to survive and how to travel in the bush, not just in Canada, but also in in the tropics. 

So for instance, when I was in my teens, I worked as a guide in Algonquin Park. What a fabulous place that is, it's a huge Park, the size of Rhode Island with 20,000 Lakes. And you're able to start at a kickoff point and then go far, far into the deep part of the park simply by loading your packs into canoes, that paddling from one end of the lake to the other. And then portaging to the next lake and so forth. 

And we did that. I would take kids out from anywhere from four to 10 days. Not so many 10 days, six, six to seven days were maximums with that with that young group. And my goodness, it was wonderful traveling. The technology has changed incredibly. Back then we were using canvas covered canoes and canvas tents never really got properly dry, right? You took to waterproof your sleeping bag, get to roll it up in a rubber tarp and stick it in the pack properly. Because packs we're all canvas. These days, all of that's much easier and everything's lighter. But the experience to be out in the bush is still it is still really something special. 

And so I was lucky to get that training early. I also learned later in life. My wife and I, I met Peggy when we were quite young, we got married and we still are after 50 years. And we've traveled together in the bush quite a good bit. And so for instance, when it came to do the South Nahanni River, a famous whitewater river in the Yukon, we were able to self-guide that. I did all the provisioning for the 10 days on the river. There's no stores to stop at. I mean, you better have your food and everything you need with you or you're going to get real hungry. Anyway, that was great training. 

So when we moved to Venezuela, and how that happened was my wife was working for Proctor and Gamble in Toronto. And she did that for many years. And then she got an opportunity to move to their head office in Cincinnati. And we did that we pulled up stakes and moved to Cincinnati in 1996. In 2001, the company offered her a chance to work in Latin America, the head office was in Caracas at the time. We didn't know anything about Caracas or Spanish or anything else. But she said yes. And she essentially became the queen of advertising for Procter and Gamble for all of Latin America. And, and we moved there and so the opportunity really came up fairly quickly for me to start getting out into the bush. 

Peggy traveled a lot so I was alone at the apartment. I got involved with an expat, actually it was the expat wives. I was the only guy in that group at the time. But anyway, through one of the gals there who ran a travel agency I met her husband Bob Saunderman. Bob is a pilot [and] was a pilot at the time. He had a lovely twin engine Piper Cherokee and he was flying into the jungle in Amazonas state in Venezuela quite often.

He had a business bringing tourists into that area and introducing them by taking them from town to town to the people who live there. And he would fly them into a place called Porto Mana, which is way up. It's called the Alta Ventuari, the High Ventuari River. The Ventuari is a tributary of the Orinoco, the second biggest river in in Latin America, after the Amazon, and it actually has a connection to the Amazon through some other rivers through the Rio Negro.

So Bob would fly people in and I got the opportunity to go in there with him and just fell in love with the whole idea and worked for free for Bob helping him with his tours of operation, helping him clean up his area. And most importantly, I got to meet Isaias Rodriguez, the Cacique for that entire area, not just Horta Mana, but all of the other towns in that area all the way up to the headwaters of the of the rivers. 

Mark at Insect Shield

What's a Cacique? 

Steve Baker

The Cacique [leader] is part of the way the indigenous people are organized. In the past, they would have a couple of poles of power in their town. One of them would be the Capitan, and the other would be the shaman. These days, there's also often an elected representative, but the Cacique stands above the Capitans. And that person is both honored as the head guy and listened to by all of the Captains in the area. So for instance, when Bob and I wanted to go up way, way up into one of these isolated villages, we needed permission from the Cacique to go there. 

At the time, we were traveling and I believe today, the Ye’kuana and Sanema, particularly the corner, have kept the Venezuelan police and army out of their area, you don't allow them in. So if you want to go there, you don't have to go to that area today, I would have to get permission and Puerto Ayacucho from the local army general. However, once there, it's the Cacique who says where you can go and work and go. He was an amazing character. As a youth, both his parents died early. A Captain from the Air Force found him in a bad way in La Esmerelda, a little town, took him to Caracas, got him to learn English and Spanish because he spoke Ye’kuana. And he went on from there to do things like be one of the guides to the French Venezuelan team that found (air quotes “found”) the headwaters of the Orinoco. The Indians knew where it was all the time. Yeah. All the way up there. And he was their hunter and guide. 

Well, later on he worked for one of the universities as a taxidermist. He was in the army as a sharpshooter, an amazing guy. He had eight wives and 40 children. He was the one who asked Bob and I for help with a problem they were having with malaria in their villages. And I didn't know anything about malaria. That's how I got involved with malaria. And that's basically how I got in contact with Insect Shield and became involved with Insect Shield in this work.

Mark at Insect Shield

And that was around 2004?

Steve Baker

I did some research into this a couple of nights. Though it was around 2004 when I really first started working on malaria at first I really didn't know what to do so I visited a fellow that I knew at the University Central de Caracas - UCV , and Dr Noya, Oscar Noya. He was the head of the Tropical Medicine Department at UCV and a real expert on both malaria and Chagas disease and some other leishmaniosis at he really actually specialized in some leishmaniosis. Anyway, he told me, why don't you try to grow Artemisia there and the people can drink the Artemisia tea, and then they won't get malaria. So he had some seeds. 

So we flew those in the next time we went and planted them in a few different places. And it was a complete failure. And we were leading an expat life. I wasn't always in Venezuela, sometimes we go to Florida and spend some time there. We own a condo and in Key Biscayne early on, and we're able to go there for a while and then go back as well when I was in Florida, I made connections with people who had Artemisia seeds for sale, and I bought some and took them back and tried again. And we failed again. 

The stuff grows. I know it because a friend of mine, a Rotarian friend of mine, grew it in Zambia and in Uganda as part of a farming project that he worked for. But it didn't work in the jungle. So I asked Dr. Noya, what else can I do here? And he said, well, why don't you try bed nets? Bed nets are real good. Well, these folks use sleeping hammocks so we can't use that bed net that you can buy on the internet because they're square and they have no way to put sleeves in there for the hammock strings. So anyway, on a trip to Miami, I found a guy who had good contacts with hammock makers in Guatemala. And he had the same problem. He wanted a net for them. 

Together we got in contact with a company in China. And we sent them a design and they made that design. So it was a rectangular net, but it had sleeves on the end so that the ropes could run through. But the sleeves could be tied off. The net would drop to the ground and totally covered the sleeper. So nets work for malaria. 

The only way you get Malaria is you get bitten by an infected mosquito. The mosquito will always be a species of Anopheles because they're the only ones who carry it and they bite at night. So if you sleep under a net, you're protected. So we had these nets, but it was clear that the nets work way better if they are impregnated with an anti-mosquito chemical like permethrin first. And I knew at the time that permethrin was available, there was a guy in Miami selling what was essentially bags of permethrin that you could buy, and that you could drop in a bucket and wash your clothes or your net and hang it out, dry it out. Got to be careful, but you can do it.

And I tried that it was worked, but I couldn't see doing that to hundreds and hundreds of nets. So I was on the internet and I saw Insect Shield. It’s actually where I followed up and I found out it was in Greensboro and made arrangements to drive up there from Miami, which I did. And I met Jason Griffin there who showed me the offices but he wouldn't take me in the back. They wouldn't take me and show me what they were actually doing. 

Insect Shield was capable of bonding their permethrin directly to the net. Fantastic. Just the best. And we bought 200 nets, sent them up to Insect Shield, who then impregnated them with permethrin. And the next time I went down to Venezuela. Soon after that, we took them in suitcases. And they ended up being distributed in and around Jodomenna. For the people who live there. The people that Cacique had asked me to help many more people there and I wanted to cover them. And I also wanted to cover the Ye’kuana who lived on the Caura River which is a nearby river. And that was a whole lot more people. 

So when I was up there, [I met with] Jason at Insect Shield in Greensborough. Jason told me about the ability to get my clothing Insect Shielded. And I thought that was a great idea. And at that time, yellow fever was really the scary insect vector disease that happened in the daytime. But we were starting to hear about Dengue fever. Dengue fever had already arrived in Venezuela and I know a couple people who have gotten it. It’s a nasty disease carried by mosquitoes that bite in the daytime. And then Chikungunya and then Zika and then Rocky Mountain spotted fever and then on and on. I got [Insect Shield clothes] because I was doing most of the jungle traveling. I got my clothes, whole set of clothes that I only use for jungle travel, permethrin impregnated. And in fact, I did not ever go into the jungle again without wearing those clothes. 

So the clothing became a really important part of the way I travel because you cannot protect yourself easily, constantly, with just insect repellent. The clothes are just so much more effective. And it got to the point where even walking around in cities, which used to be fairly free of these kinds of vector borne diseases, was dangerous. So I had some formal clothes, insecticide treated as well. So I could go out to meetings and stuff like the Rotary meetings. I have recommended it to probably now hundreds of people to use when they are traveling in places where there are vector borne diseases. 

There is [medication] you can take if you're concerned about malaria on a trip. The problem with these drugs is they have some very serious side effects. We tried it one time, Peggy and I, I got along okay with it - didn't feel great, but Peggy just puked her guts out for hours. So we just simply couldn't use this stuff. 

And you know, when you're when you're out in the jungle for a month, who wants to be taking a drug that makes you ill and could give you a psychotic break? No. So the clothes and insect repellent have kept me safe in what is the equivalent of years of travel in the jungle as well now in in North America, where we have problems with West Nile and numerous other dangerous vector borne diseases. 

It never used to be on the radar, certainly not in Canada. And so, getting back to the net, we did this 200 net distribution, but I wanted more. I wanted to do more. And at about that time, Rick Hemmerling at the head office of Insect Shield, offered to treat 2000 nets free of charge. A huge donation. And I worked with a couple of other people to get enough money to buy 2000 nets that we could have treated. And we did that. 

And the nets were made in China, and then sent to the Insect Shield factory there. They were treated and sent to Florida, and then we shipped them to Venezuela. And they were distributed throughout the Alta Venturi. And in fact, if your listeners are interested in seeing what that looks like, there's a YouTube video, which is an excerpt of a longer movie about that expedition, which shows the distribution of those very nets in Cacuri, in 2008.

Mark at Insect Shield

We'll put the videos below this interview in the post so people can find them down there. 

Steve Baker

Excellent. So what does it mean to have net when it comes to malaria? As I mentioned, malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes who bite at night. And we know from other projects, let me tell you how I got into other projects very briefly. When we left Venezuela, we moved back to Cincinnati for a while. And then when Peggy retired, we moved to Florida and a friend of ours there in Florida, this would be around 2008 said, Why don't you go and talk to the Rotary Club there. And maybe they'll give you some money for your net projects. I did that. And they did, they gave me a couple 100 bucks. So that helped pay for those 2000 nets that I'm talking about there a while ago. 

But they also got me to join the Club. And the Rotary has a wonderful program called Global Grants. And what Global Grants does is they allow you to triple your money at that time. If you can collect $10,000 well, you can make it into $30,000 using this system. And by doing Global Grants starting small and growing bigger, over the last 10 years, my partners in Venezuela, my Rotary partners in Venezuela, and I delivered 70,000 nets, in an area with a terrible, terrible malaria outbreak. 

And we also delivered an extra 20,000 in Peru. Yeah, around Iquitos. So the system works really, really well. And these were similar to the nets that we did with Insect Shield, but they use a different chemical. And they're mass manufactured in a way that we weren't able to do it using our little net manufacturer with Insect Shield to do the bonding of the chemical. 

In any case, the nets when everybody uses one, are incredibly effective in knocking down malaria infections. In our studies, post distribution of the nets, we had about a 74% reduction in malaria transmission over a good long time with the nets only, not using any other kinds of strategies to knock down the transmission. And that's because we were able to get everybody in town to use their net every night. 

And here's why that matters. The chemicals that are used on our current nets kill mosquitoes on contact. And so people sleep in these nets and breathe out carbon dioxide. The mosquitoes zero in on that and they come into the house, and they land on the net and they get killed. And these are both infected mosquitoes and non-infected mosquitoes. They're about to knock these mosquitoes and other types of mosquitoes. They all come in and the level of mosquitoes in that town goes way down. 

That really is the reason why these nets are so effective in stopping transmission because not only do they prevent the mosquitoes from getting to a person, but the level of mosquitoes in general goes down. So if I have to get up and get out of my hammock to go pee in the night, and then come back into the house. There are fewer mosquitoes to bite me at that time. My odds of getting bitten by an infected mosquito go down just because people are using nets in town.

Mark at Insect Shield

Sure, because they're not reproducing in the same numbers either if they're dying off like that.

Steve Baker

Well, that's right. Now in, in Venezuela, we were limited in what we could do, because the government was not friendly to NGOs. They weren't at that time, they still aren't. Things can be done, but it has to be done pretty much under the radar, which is what we did. There are other things that could be added to mosquito nets. And what we're going to do, and I'll talk a bit later about what we want to do in Colombia, but there's something called residual wall spraying. This is a really smart idea. When a mosquito bites you, it gets too heavy to fly very far, because of the weight of the liquid that it takes for your blood. So they go and they land on a wall nearby, excrete the liquid, keep the proteins and go bite somebody else, for more protein. 

So if you spray those walls with the right chemical that will dry and crystallize on the wall and last for about six months. Every mosquito that lands on that wall dies. So again, you are lowering the number of infected mosquitoes and usually the ones that land on the wall have already bitten somebody. So they are probably infected. Right? There are drawbacks to this internal wall spraying. 

So for instance, in the areas where most of the malaria is coming from. In Venezuela, this is mining areas where there are people living rough, beside these giant pools of water, where they're panning out and using other methodology to get the gold, and mosquitoes follow, so many mosquitoes and they're living in tents that are nothing more than four sticks and a plastic over the top. 

So they're getting bitten like crazy. And what you can see from the statistics is that 10s of 1000s of people have come to these mines work there become infected, and then go home carrying the infection with them. Like so many of these infections, it's us who are spreading it. Vectors don't travel very far. A mosquito doesn't go much more than about a mile and a half in her lifetime. So it's us moving from place to place with the part of the malaria parasite that lives in us. We carry it. Mosquitoes in the next place we go bite us. 

And often these mosquitoes, they become infected, they start biting people locally. And it spreads like that. And you can see it happened in Venezuela. In 2001, two states had malaria. Amazonas & Bolivar. Now, 14 states have it. And that's because of those mines. And the problems that are happening there. Now most of that 70,000 nets that I talked about were delivered in that mining area.

And in the areas where we were able to deliver nets when I say we I mean Rotary. We also shared nets with Doctors Without Borders. We're also working there, and also the local Malariologia group that is tasked with fighting malaria. And yeah, so it's been from starting small with a couple 100 nets treated from Insect Shield to close to 100,000 nets now between Venezuela and Peru. It's been quite a journey, a fun journey. And I wear Insect Shield clothes.

Mark at Insect Shield 

So nice to hear about and you know, Insect Shield has a history of helping with these kinds of efforts. Anybody listening can contact us through our website or just email And we often offer this kind of support for various nonprofits. We work with Medical Teams International, a well-known nonprofit working in Africa and doing the same kinds of efforts to stem the tide of these insect borne diseases. So it's great to hear about your experience and the way that that we've been able to support you. 

What do you think going forward? Are you still planning to do this kind of work or is Rotary still supporting you to do this kind of work, or do you have other plans?

Steve Baker

Yes to everything. 

I have other plans, but I don't often get to do them because, one thing about doing projects like this, is you find that they really can be very, very time consuming, very time consuming. And I have to balance what I do for my, the good of my mental health. With time doing other things, things with my wife things with family, go fishing. So yes, I'm continuing to do it.

And right now, I'm in the thick of it with a project in Colombia. We are we are running, we are trying to fund a really good pilot project that will try to eliminate malaria altogether. From a very small area of Colombia, it's called UNOPI 8. It's in the Pacific, the Valle de Cauca, on the Pacific coast of Colombia. They have a fair bit of malaria there, it's endemic, and we'd like to totally eliminate it there. And then use the lessons we learn about how to work with the local people to do a country wide project, a follow on project, a much larger one. 

And so at that project, it's about $140,000 project, it will include bed nets, it will include in wall spraying that I described earlier. They have some illegal mining in the area, which has left abandoned ponds that are just full of mosquito larvae. We'll be working on eliminating the larvae from there. And, you know, it's a good project. And I think I sent you some flyers on that project. But we haven't abandoned our friends in Venezuela.

The folks who - this part's a bit complicated and I'm not sure really how much I should talk about this in public. I don't want to criticize the current government, because that doesn't help. When you're trying to work in country. The situation is this. Doctors Without Borders are not being allowed to do the work that they really need to do. And they gave some of the nets that they had for malaria. Dr. Jorge Moreno, who we've worked with for years. And so Jorge has these nets, but he hasn't got any money to help with the distribution. 

So what we're trying to do is a very small project, nothing that needs a global grant, but just enough to support Jorge and his team of three people to go out. And we have to keep his four by four on the road too so we can get to the communities that need the nets. So he can distribute this 6000 nets. 

So that's another project that we're working on trying to fund. We have some partners in that. There's a group called MPI or malaria partners international, anybody who's interested in malaria work, I suggest they look at that. Google that and look at that website. We can get a small grant from them. And we can also get a small grant from RAM Global to do this work. RAM Global is an organization that I am happy to talk about. I'm a board member of that organization. We do anti malaria work worldwide.

Mark at Insect Shield

That is Rotary international Anti-Malaria Action Group. Is that the same?

Steve Baker

We have something called RAGS or Rotary Action Groups. There's one for freshwater, there's just a whole variety of them. And the malaria one is called RAM Global and we're involved in helping Rotarians to do projects. We have small grants, but we also can help them with technical problems, logistics, where to source stuff, and that sort of thing. 

Our members work in places like East Timor, where Rotarians from Australia have essentially eliminated malaria from East Timor and now working to do the same thing in West Timor. We're working with many different groups in Africa. We've sponsored three small grants in Tanzania, in Moshi and in Dar Salaam, where Rotary is working with their biggest grant ever in Zambia, they are putting together they have put together a $2 million grant and they are being joined with World Vision with another $2 million. And the Gates Foundation with another $2 million for a $6 million budget, to train community health care workers to go out into the community and fight malaria. 

This has been proven to be a very good strategy, we can get workers out there to test people with fevers, and they’re trained to use the medications that are effective. They're trained to go out and look for other patients who might have come in contact. It's a really effective way to eliminate malaria. And Plasmodium falciparum kills 10s of 1000s of people in that country every year. And so RAM Global is involved. We have fingers in all of these pies. We're not primary actors. But we’re a support group, we're really Action Group for malaria. Malaria Partners International, on the other hand, is more of a hands on group, they work with another organization called PATH and do a lot of projects primarily in Africa, but not exclusively in Africa.

Mark at Insect Shield

That is all very useful information. I certainly appreciate it, Steve, and it's great to have you on our blog. I will put a lot of those links that you mentioned below the interview here. We'll include all that and any more information that people want, and maybe some contact info if they want to get more info from you. So we really appreciate it. It's been great talking to you. I hope we can continue to keep in touch and thanks very much.

Steve Baker

Well, Mark, it's been a real pleasure. And it really was fun preparing - with all those memories of travel around in the Ventuari. It was great.