Background: Mass distribution of long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets (LLINs) has led to large increases in LLIN coverage in many African countries. As LLIN ownership levels increase, planners of future mass distributions face the challenge of deciding whether to ignore the nets already owned by households or to take these into account and attempt to target individuals or households without nets. Taking existing nets into account would reduce commodity costs but require more sophisticated, and potentially more costly, distribution procedures. The decision may also have implications for the average age of nets in use and therefore on the maintenance of universal LLIN coverage over time.
Methods: A stochastic simulation model based on the NetCALC algorithm was used to determine the scenarios under which it would be cost saving to take existing nets into account, and the potential effects of doing so on the age profile of LLINs owned. The model accounted for variability in timing of distributions, concomitant use of continuous distribution systems, population growth, sampling error in pre-campaign coverage surveys, variable net 'decay' parameters and other factors including the feasibility and accuracy of identifying existing nets in the field.
Results: Results indicate that (i) where pre-campaign coverage is around 40% (of households owning at least 1 LLIN), accounting for existing nets in the campaign will have little effect on the mean age of the net population and (ii) even at pre-campaign coverage levels above 40%, an approach that reduces LLIN distribution requirements by taking existing nets into account may have only a small chance of being cost-saving overall, depending largely on the feasibility of identifying nets in the field. Based on existing literature the epidemiological implications of such a strategy is likely to vary by transmission setting, and the risks of leaving older nets in the field when accounting for existing nets must be considered.
Conclusions: Where pre-campaign coverage levels established by a household survey are below 40% we recommend that planners do not take such LLINs into account and instead plan a blanket mass distribution. At pre-campaign coverage levels above 40%, campaign planners should make explicit consideration of the cost and feasibility of accounting for existing LLINs before planning blanket mass distributions. Planners should also consider restricting the coverage estimates used for this decision to only include nets under two years of age in order to ensure that old and damaged nets do not compose too large a fraction of existing net coverage.