Insecticide-based interventions, such as long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) and indoor residual spraying (IRS), remain the backbone of malaria vector control. These interventions target mosquitoes that prefer to feed and rest indoors, but have limited capacity to prevent transmission that occurs outdoors or outside regular sleeping hours. In low-endemicity areas, malaria elimination will require that these control gaps are addressed, and complementary tools are found. The use of topical repellents may be particularly useful for populations who may not benefit from programmatic malaria control measures, such as refugees, the military, or forest goers. This Cochrane Review aims to measure the effectiveness of topical repellents to prevent malaria infection among high- and non-high-risk populations living in malaria-endemic regions.
To assess the effect of topical repellents alone or in combination with other background interventions (long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, or indoor residual spraying, or both) for reducing the incidence of malaria in high- and non-high-risk populations living in endemic areas.
We searched the following databases up to 11 January 2023: the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialised Register; CENTRAL (in the Cochrane Library); MEDLINE; Embase; CAB Abstracts; and LILACS. We also searched trial registration platforms and conference proceedings; and contacted organizations and companies for ongoing and unpublished trials.
We included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and cluster-randomized controlled trials (cRCTs) of topical repellents proven to repel mosquitoes. We also included non-randomized studies that complied with pre-specified inclusion criteria: controlled before-after studies (CBA), controlled interrupted time series (ITS), and controlled cross-over trials.
Four review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion, and extracted the data. Two authors independently assessed the risk of bias (RoB) using the Cochrane RoB 2 tool. A fifth review author resolved any disagreements. We analysed data by conducting a meta-analysis, stratified by whether studies included populations considered to be at high-risk of developing malaria infection (for example, refugees, forest goers, or deployed military troops). We combined results from cRCTs with RCTs by adjusting for clustering and presented results using forest plots. We used the GRADE framework to assess the certainty of the evidence. We only included data on Plasmodium falciparum infections in the meta-analysis.
Thirteen articles relating to eight trials met the inclusion criteria and were qualitatively described. We included six trials in the meta-analysis (five cRCTs and one RCT). Effect on malaria incidence Topical repellents may slightly reduce P falciparum infection and clinical incidence when both outcomes are considered together (incidence rate ratio (IRR) 0.74, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.56 to 0.98; 3 cRCTs and 1 RCT, 61,651 participants; low-certainty evidence); but not when these two outcomes were considered independently. Two cRCTs and one RCT (12,813 participants) evaluated the effect of topical repellents on infection incidence (IRR 0.76, 95% CI 0.56 to 1.02; low-certainty evidence). One cRCT (48,838 participants) evaluated their effect on clinical case incidence (IRR 0.66, 95% CI 0.32 to 1.36; low-certainty evidence). Three studies (2 cRCTs and 1 RCT) included participants belonging to groups considered at high-risk of being infected, while only one cRCT did not include participants at high risk. Adverse events Topical repellents are considered safe. The prevalence of adverse events among participants who used topical repellents was very low (0.6%, 283/47,515) and limited to mild skin reactions. Effect on malaria prevalence Topical repellents may slightly reduce P falciparum prevalence (odds ratio (OR) 0.81, 95% CI 0.67 to 0.97; 3 cRCTs and 1 RCT; 55,366 participants; low-certainty evidence). Two of these studies (1 cRCT and 1 RCT) were carried out in refugee camps, and included exclusively high-risk populations that were not receiving any other background vector control intervention.
There is insufficient evidence to conclude that topical repellents can prevent malaria in settings where other vector control interventions are in place. We found the certainty of evidence for all outcomes to be low, primarily due to the risk of bias. A protective effect was suggested among high-risk populations, specially refugees, who might not have access to other standard vector control measures. More adequately powered clinical trials carried out in refugee camps could provide further information on the potential benefit of topical repellents in this setting. Individually randomized studies are also likely necessary to understand whether topical repellents have an effect on personal protection, and the degree to which diversion to non-protected participants affects overall transmission dynamics. Despite this, the potential additional benefits of topical repellents are most likely limited in contexts where other interventions are available.