The House Paint That Can Prevent Diseases

Chemist Pilar Mateo has come up with a paint that slowly releases insecticides, making homes inhospitable to parasite-spreading bugs.
Pilar Mateo (Inesfly-Bolivia)

Across Latin American, large beetles known as vinchucas spread Chagas disease. The disease can lie dormant for years, but when it emerges, it can damage the digestive system and heart, sometimes fatally.

The vinchucas, technically Triatoma infestans, are also known as kissing bugs, because of their tendency to bite on the face. They inhabit the crevices of mud or adobe houses, coming out at night. Latin America is the epicenter of this beetle’s territory, with about 7 to 8 million people are infected with Chagas disease. Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, the disease’s namesake, identified its source in 1909. 

A vinchuca (Reuters)

The most effective prevention is to upgrade from mud huts, but for impoverished, indigenous peoples residing in the lowest income Latin American countries, that is rarely possible. 

But a novel invention from Pilar Mateo, a Ph.D. in chemistry who joined her family’s paint business in her native Valencia, Spain, could help matters, even in the huts.

A local hospital facing a cockroach infestation inspired Mateo to come up with an idea for infusing paint with insecticide. It would be slow-releasing; toxic to the insects, but not to humans. Her microencapsulation experiment eventually succeeded, with vast potential for reducing human illness by treating structures. Painting disease prevention on a wall is, after all, likely easier than later diagnosing and treating patients.

An activist physician working on ways to help indigenous Bolivians living the Chaco, Cleto Cáceres, approached Mateo, requesting that she try her paint treatment on their infested homes to help control the spread of Chagas disease. Mateo headed to Bolivia to give the paint on try on the vinchucas. 

It worked. She describes the process as vaccinating the house rather than its inhabitants. Deploying Inesfly, as the paint is known, reduced infestation rates from as high as 90 percent to nearly zero. The paint is comprised of WHO-approved insecticides which kill mature insects as well as Insect Growth Regulators which kill eggs and young insects, bringing down the overall insect population. The paint retains its potency for several years, though it is not effective against pesticide-resistant insects. Acceptance and WHO regulatory approval has been slow in coming, though 15 countries have approved it.

The approach is proving effective in decreasing insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria. Additionally, it is reducing populations of many unpopular insects: ants, bedbugs, cockroaches, scorpions, spiders, ticks, and more. Inesfly sells retail through normal distribution channels as well as directly to insect-control professionals through a deal signed with Bayer, a German corporation. The company has reently opened a $13,000,000 Inesfly Africa factory in Accra, Ghana, to distribute more cost-effectively to the African market

Inesfly is privately held. A percentage of its profits fund health education and vocational training for indigenous communities. Mateo also has also set up her own foundation. As Mateo says, you must treat the poverty, not just its symptoms.

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Betsy Teutsch is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is currently working on a book, 100 Under $100: The Women's Global Toolkit.

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