The use of mosquito repellents at three sites in India with declining malaria transmission: surveys in the community and clinic
- Anna Maria van Eijk1Email authorView ORCID ID profile,
- Lalitha Ramanathapuram1,
- Patrick L. Sutton1, 7,
- Nandini Peddy2,
- Sandhya Choubey2,
- Stuti Mohanty2,
- Aswin Asokan3,
- Sangamithra Ravishankaran3,
- G Sri Lakshmi Priya3,
- Justin Amala Johnson3,
- Sangeetha Velayutham3,
- Deena Kanagaraj3,
- Ankita Patel4,
- Nisha Desai4,
- Nikunj Tandel4,
- Steven A. Sullivan1,
- Samuel C. Wassmer5,
- Ranveer Singh4,
- K Pradhan2,
- Jane M. Carlton1,
- H. C. Srivasatava4,
- Alex Eapen3 and
- S. K. Sharma6
© The Author(s). 2016
Received: 11 March 2016
Accepted: 18 July 2016
Published: 27 July 2016
Repellents such as coils, vaporizers, mats and creams can be used to reduce the risk of malaria and other infectious diseases. Although evidence for their effectiveness is limited, they are advertised as providing an additional approach to mosquito control in combination with other strategies, e.g. insecticide-treated nets. We examined the use of repellents in India in an urban setting in Chennai (mainly Plasmodium vivax malaria), a peri-urban setting in Nadiad (both P. vivax and P. falciparum malaria), and a more rural setting in Raurkela (mainly P. falciparum malaria).
The use of repellents was examined at the household level during a census, and at the individual level in cross-sectional surveys and among patients visiting a clinic with fever or other symptoms. Factors associated with their use were examined in a multivariate analysis, and the association between malaria and the use of repellents was assessed among survey- and clinic participants.
Characteristics of participants differed by region, with more people of higher education present in Chennai. Use of repellents varied between 56–77 % at the household level and between 32–78 % at the individual level. Vaporizers were the main repellents used in Chennai, whereas coils were more common in Nadiad and Raurkela. In Chennai and Nadiad, vaporizers were more likely to be used in households with young male children. Vaporizer use was associated with higher socio-economic status (SES) in households in Chennai and Nadiad, whereas use of coils was greater in the lower SES strata. In Raurkela, there was a higher use of coils among the higher SES strata. Education was associated with the use of a repellent among survey participants in Chennai and clinic study participants in Chennai and Nadiad. Repellent use was associated with less malaria in the clinic study in Chennai and Raurkela, but not in the surveys, with the exception of the use of coils in Nadiad.
Repellents are widely used in India. Their use is influenced by the level of education and SES. Information on effectiveness and guidance on choices may improve rational use.
Description of mosquito repellents
Mixture of repellent powder and a combustible filling material and a binder in the shape of a coil. Releases repellent in the air when burning
A reservoir bottle with fluid repellent which is evaporated by an electric heater through a porous wick
Pads impregnated with a volatile repellent which needs to be heated on a small electric heating plate to vaporize
Skin cream or oil supplemented with a repellent
Special absorbent material which slowly evaporates a suitable repellent at room temperature (strips or small box)
Nadiad town is located in the Kheda district in the central part of Gujarat State (Fig. 1) and has a population of ~225,132. It has a sub-tropical and semi-arid climate, receiving the majority of its annual precipitation during the southwest monsoon season (June–September) . Malaria is considered to be hypo-endemic, with P. vivax and P. falciparum prevalence rates oscillating throughout the year based on the transmission season; the main malaria vector is An. culicifacies [23, 24]. The National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR) Malaria Clinic is located in the Civil Hospital at Nadiad in a predominantly residential neighborhood. Census was conducted in the residential areas around the NIMR malaria clinic and in Sevaliya and Chetarsumba, two rural areas of the Kheda district close to Nadiad town with higher reported malaria endemicity.
Raurkela city is located in the Sundargarh district of the eastern state of Odisha (Fig. 1) and has a population of ~552,970 . Raurkela has a ‘tropical wet and dry’ climate receiving heavy rains during the southwest monsoon season (June-September) and some rainfall during the retreating northeast monsoon (December-January) . Malaria displays meso- to hyper-endemic transmission in this region, with P. falciparum as the major infecting species in the district; the main malaria vectors are An. fluviatilis and An. culicifacies [23, 24]. A new malaria clinic and research laboratory was developed at the Health Centre in Sector 1 due to its proximity to nearby slum areas. Census was conducted in the areas around Sector 1 Health Centre and the rural forested areas of Sundargarh district with higher reported malaria endemicity.
At each site, census information was collected by household on type of housing, water supply, use of malaria protection and demographics of the household members (age, gender, education and occupation). Four cross-sectional surveys were conducted over two years, each drawing subjects from a different random selection of census household members. After obtaining consent from the participant, they were interviewed using a structured questionnaire with sections on malaria history and use of mosquito protection; blood was also collected for microscopy and hemoglobin assessment. To increase the chance of detecting malaria, the surveys in Nadiad and Raurkela focused on rural segments of the census area. Patients visiting the malaria clinics at the three sites with symptoms indicative of malaria were enrolled in the clinic-based study and subjected to the same questionnaire and blood tests as used in the community survey, but were not linked to census data.
Laboratory tests were performed for all individuals enrolled in the cross-sectional surveys and clinic studies. Hemoglobin level was assessed at the time of enrollment using HemoCue (HemoCue, Ängelholm, Sweden). Thin and thick smears obtained from blood collected via a finger prick were stained using Giemsa and at least 300 fields in the thick smear were examined using the 100× oil immersion before a slide was determined negative for malaria. Parasites were counted on the thick smear against 200–500 white blood cells (WBCs). The results were expressed as parasites per microliter of blood, using the WBC count if known, or assuming 8,000 WBCs per microliter of blood. Slides were routinely read by two microscopists and a third was used if there was disagreement. In addition, 10 % of the slides were re-checked for quality control.
A secure, web-based REDCap (Research Electronic Data Capture) database was used to capture and store all participant data and test results . Subsequently, data were exported into Stata (Stata/IC version 13.1, StataCorp LP, College Station, USA) for analysis. For the census, which was conducted at the household level, principle components analysis was used to construct a wealth index to assess the effect of socio-economic status (SES) [26, 27], whereby the following household characteristics were used: building material of the house, source of drinking water, household ownership, electricity, livestock, education and occupation of the head of the household and routine source of health care (private, public or a combination). For all data sets, only households and individuals with information available on repellents were included in the analysis. For each site, repellents were defined as the use of coils, vaporizers, mats or creams; determinants of overall use of repellents and the two most common types used in a region were examined. Using census data, the following factors were evaluated for their association with the use of repellents at the household level: presence of a young (< 5 years of age) male or female child in the household; gender of the head of the household; presence of at least one person with secondary education in the household; SES; presence of at least one household member with an episode of malaria within the last year; season of interview and (for Raurkela only) ITN use. The following factors were examined at the individual level in the surveys: gender, age, education, a history of a malaria episode in the last year, season of interview, SES of the household and (for Raurkela only) ITN use. For clinic participants the same individual level factors were examined, except that occupation of the participant replaced SES. In the survey and clinic data the association between the use of repellent and malaria, and of repellent and anemia were explored. Generalized linear regression with a log link and binomial distribution was used for multivariate analyses, and Poisson regression with a robust variance estimator was used for models which did not converge . Factors with a P-value < 0.1 in the univariate model were included in the multivariate model, and factors with a P-value > 0.05 were removed from the model, except for factors of special interest (e.g. young female child if young male child was significant in the multivariate model). The multivariate model for surveys was adjusted for clustering at the household level.
Characteristics of households participating in census at three sites in India, 2012–2014
Chennai (n = 1,483)
Nadiad (n = 1,832)
Raurkela (n = 1,204)
χ 2, P-value (df = 2)
Time period of data-collection
Jan 2012–Oct 2014
Nov 2012–Oct 2014
Apr 2012–Apr 2014
Electricity in household (%)
418.87, < 0.001
1,400, < 0.001
Average number of people in the household (SD), range
4.2 (1.6), 1–21
5.2 (2.5), 1–16
5.2 (2.1), 1–24
ANOVA: F (2, 4515) = 100.53, P < 0.001
Child < 5 years in household (%)
105.86, < 0.001
Young male child (%)
67.13, < 0.001
Young female child (%)
63.06, < 0.001
Male head of household (%)
Head of household salaried employment (%)
313.23, < 0.001
Head of household at least secondary education
543.35, < 0.001
≥ 1 person with at least secondary education in household (%)
443.46, < 0.001
Head of household had malaria in previous year (%)
74.38, < 0.001
≥ 1 person with malaria in the previous year (%)
116.07, < 0.001
53.94, < 0.001
(df = 4)
> 2 persons
Interview in rainy season (%)
377.72, < 0.001
Characteristics of study participants by location and type of study at three sites in India, 2012–2015
Chennai (n = 928)
Nadiad (n = 796)
Raurkela (n = 1,539)
Chennai (n = 1,054)
Nadiad (n = 685)
Raurkela (n = 1,875)
Dec 12–Oct 14
May 13–Sep 14
Jan 13–Sep 14
Apr 12–Mar 15
Jan 13–Apr 15
Apr 12–Apr 15
Mean age, n (95 % CI, years)
33.3, n = 927, (32.3–34.3)a
34.2, n = 796, (32.9–35.5)
28.4, n = 1539, (27.5–29.3)
31.8, n = 1054, (31.0–32.6)b
27.4, n = 685, (26.1–28.7)
29.4 n = 1875, (28.5–30.3)
< 5 years, n (%)
5–9 years, n (%)
10–17 years, n (%)
> 17 years, n (%)
Male, n (%)
Among persons ≥ 18 years
n = 782
n = 629
n = 1,015
n = 910
n = 460
n = 1,252
Highest level of education secondary or higher, n (%)
Salaried employment n (%)
Use of personal mosquito protection
Factors associated with the use of mosquito repellents
Census: household level
Factors associated with the report of the use of a repellent at the household level in multivariate analysis
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Female < 5 years in HH
Male < 5 years in HH
At least one person with secondary education in HH
Male head of HH
Female < 5 years in HH
Male < 5 years in HH
Person with secondary education in HH
Male head of household
Member(s) with a history of malaria last year
Survey: individual level
Factors associated with the report of personal malaria protection in surveys (individual level)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
At least Secondary education
At least secondary education
Clinic: individual level
Among clinic participants in Chennai and Nadiad, use of repellents was higher among people with at least secondary education, whereas at all three sites repellent use was significantly less common among workers with a daily wage compared to workers with a regular salary (Table 5, Additional file 1: Table S6A–C). In Nadiad and Raurkela, variable age groups were associated with vaporizer or coil use. In Chennai and Raurkela, vaporizers were less likely to be used during the rainy season, whereas in Nadiad they were more likely to be used in the rainy season among the clinic study participants.
Association between the use of personal malaria protection and malaria
We detected different patterns of repellent use in three areas in India with different types of malaria transmission. Although factors associated with repellent use differed by site and study design, they often included the SES of the household and education of the participant, in addition to season. An association between the use of repellents and malaria was detected in the clinic study in Chennai and Raurkela, and the use of coils in the survey at the Nadiad site. The different patterns of repellent use by source of population indicate that study results from clinics, a frequent source of studies in India, cannot just be extrapolated to the community.
The reported use of repellents was generally more common at the household level during the census than at the individual level in the surveys. The surveys included a more rural population in Nadiad and Raurkela, which may explain part of the difference. It is also possible that reported use at the household level was exaggerated or not applicable to every household member. The higher prevalence of repellents in Chennai and Nadiad could be due to (wealthier) urban areas being more exposed to health messages from television and newspapers and having greater access and economic ability to purchase repellents [29, 30]. Use of creams was overall low in our study for reasons that are unclear, but might include concerns about costs and safety . The use of ITNs was low; India’s strategic plan for malaria only recommends ITNs and IRS in areas with an Annual Parasite Incidence of two or more, which is currently only the case at the site in Odisha and likely explains the higher use of ITNs detected in Raurkela .
Factors associated with the report of personal mosquito protection among persons visiting the clinic with symptoms
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
Risk ratio (95 % CI)
At least secondary education
< 5 years
> 17 years
At least secondary education
< 5 years
> 17 years
At least secondary education
Malaria history past year
The use of repellents is usually greater when the burden of mosquitoes increases, which is typically during or after the rainy season. However, in Nadiad at the household level the opposite pattern was detected, with repellents use occurring primarily during the dry season; it has been reported that the main mosquito burden in central Gujarat can occur after the rainy season during the dry and cooler period .
Our study has several limitations. We did not collect information on brand and costs of the repellent, and we did not verify reported use of a repellent by observation, to make sure the type of repellent was classified appropriately. The use of repellent was not quantified, e.g. we did not have information if it was used every day or occasionally or when and how many hours during the day it was used. We did not examine the use of aerosol sprays, or other types of mosquito protection that are available. We also did not check for appropriate use of ITNs.
At some sites and in some studies we detected a protective association between repellent use and malaria. In contrast, reported ITN use in Raurkela was associated with a higher risk of malaria, although as mentioned earlier, we did not confirm possession or the proper use of the nets. Possibly, the use of repellents is an indicator of people whose behavior puts them at lower risk of malaria generally. Protective effects of repellents have been reported in other observational studies in India ; however, a trial is the preferable design to assess efficacy. Most studies evaluating repellents conducted tests under laboratory conditions, or controlled field conditions, e.g. putting an object with a repellent in a space with mosquitoes and observing the behavior of the mosquitoes [34, 35]. Creams containing DEET have so far provided the longest protection in laboratory studies , though a domestically produced cream claimed similar efficacy in laboratory and field tests . Studies evaluating coils did find a repellent effect [35, 37], but not a strong insecticidal (killing) effect . A review of the effectiveness of coils and vapor emanators reported that coils and vaporizers induce mortality, deterrence, and repellence and reduced the ability of mosquitoes to feed on humans; however, because of the different methodologies no uniform result could be presented . Guidelines for standardized laboratory tests for repellents have now been developed [39–41]. A few trials have examined the use of repellents with clinical malaria or malaria parasitemia as the outcome. A four-arm trial conducted in 2007 in an area of China with both P. falciparum and P. vivax reported a 77 % reduced prevalence of malaria (by rapid diagnostic test) among participants in households using coils, and 94 % when coils were combined with the use of insecticide treated nets (ITNs), compared to households which did not use any protection . A study in Ethiopia reported a significant protective effect of daily application of a repellent cream in combination with an ITN when compared to ITNs only . A trial in Thailand among 897 pregnant women after the first trimester compared a 20 % DEET cream to placebo using weekly blood smear assessments; although the women using cream had fewer episodes of parasitemia, the difference was not significant . No side effects were noted in the women or their infants observed for one year . A non-significant but protective effect (11.4 % reduction) was also reported from a cluster randomized trial in rural Tanzania, comparing 15 % DEET topical repellent versus placebo in a population using long lasting ITNs . A plant based insect repellent showed a significant 80 % reduction in P. vivax in the Bolivian Amazon when used in combination with ITNs in a placebo controlled randomized trial; although the protective effect against P. falciparum was similar, this was not significant because of the low number of cases . Soap with 20 % DEET was associated with protection against P. falciparum in studies from Afghanistan and Tanzania [48, 49].
Importance for public health
Apart from ITNs, there is only limited information available about the efficacy of personal mosquito protection such as coils, mats, vaporizers or creams; fortunately a Cochrane review has been planned . Repellents may form an attractive option in areas where mosquitoes bite during daytime or in the early evening, as has been reported in Asia [51, 52]. Overall, approximately two-thirds of the households and one-third of the participants in the survey and clinic studies reported the use of repellents in our studies. Taking information from other studies in India into account, the number may be even higher (Additional file 1: Table S1). Although the use of mosquito repellents may be the most prevalent preventive behavior among urban Indians in particular , India’s strategic plan for malaria control mentions repellents only once as an alternative method to be explored for outdoor use . The consumer must rely on information provided on television and other media for recommendations for what repellent to use, and when and where, with consumer groups filling the gap . The market for these types of products in India is considerable and estimated at $ 1.5 billion distributed between four main industry companies . Substantial growth is anticipated because of improving levels of education in rural areas and the increasing awareness of other potentially serious mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and the newly emerging Zika virus . However, it is not clear if the many and different types of products containing repellents widely available across India are actually worth the investment people make. In addition, options are limited for areas without electricity, and there are concerns about the safety of repellents and their long-term effects on health. In three villages in India where 53 % of the study participants regularly burned coils and 63 % had their doors and windows closed, high levels of small particulate matter and carbon monoxide were measured, and respiratory morbidity was higher in smaller houses where coils were used daily . A laboratory study of pyrethroid concentration in indoor air during application of a coil, a vaporizer, a mat and an aerosol spray concluded that there is potential for exceeding the safety limit of some pyrethroids for children, especially among infants .
There is considerable repellent use in India, with a wide variety of products available. Currently, their use is mainly determined by socio-economic status and level of education. Repellents can be an attractive option to reduce mosquito bites during day time, and the early evening, and are an option for the night in areas which do not qualify for ITNs or IRS. Further clinical testing of these methods and evaluation of safety will be useful for an evidence-based recommendation about how to choose and use repellents, and to consolidate their role in programs that aim to prevent vector-borne diseases.
ITN, Insecticide treated nets; IRS, Indoor residual spraying; SES, Socio-economic status
We would like to thank the staff of the malaria clinics in Besant Nagar, Chennai, and Civil Hospital, Nadiad, for their help, and the NIMR staff at the Chennai, Nadiad, Raurkela and Delhi field sites, specifically N Bhaskar and B Reeta for screening blood smears, and G Balaji, V Vaishanavi Pavithra, Paresh Rana, and Jay Joshi for data entry. We thank the Director of NIMR Neena Valecha for her management and support of the Center for the Study of Complex Malaria in India.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Allergy And Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U19AI089676 as part of the International Centers for Excellence in Malaria Research. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets supporting the conclusions of this article are included within the article and its additional files. Raw data will be available in the PlasmoDB repository (http://plasmodb.org).
All the authors have contributed significantly to this study. SKS, AE, HCS, RC, KP, PLS, LR, SCW and JMC conceptualized and designed the studies. LR, PLS, PN, SC, SM, AA, SR, GSLP, VS, DK, AP, ND and NT were involved in the conduct of the studies and laboratory assessments. AMvE and SAS were involved in the data cleaning and analysis. AMvE, LR, AE and SKS prepared the manuscript. All authors critically reviewed, read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
These studies received ethical approval from the Institutional Review Board at New York University School of Medicine and the Human Subjects Ethical Committee at the National Institute of Malaria Research (ICMR) in New Delhi. Participants could only take part after informed consent was obtained.
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
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