BACKGROUND: Scaling up insecticide-treated mosquito net (ITN) coverage is a key malaria control strategy even in conflict-affected countries. Socio-economic factors influence access to ITNs whether subsidized or provided free to users. This study examines reported ITN purchasing, coverage, and usage in eastern Afghanistan and explores women's access to health information during the Taliban regime (1996-2001). This strengthens the knowledge base on household-level health choices in complex-emergency settings. METHODS: Fifteen focus group discussions (FGDs) and thirty in-depth interviews were conducted with men and women from ITN-owning and non-owning households. FGDs included rank ordering, pile sorting and focused discussion of malaria knowledge and ITN purchasing. Interviews explored general health issues, prevention and treatment practices, and women's malaria knowledge and concerns. Seven key informant interviews with health-related workers and a concurrent survey of 200 ITN-owning and 214 non-owning households were used to clarify or quantify findings. RESULTS: Malaria knowledge was similar among men and women and ITN owners and non-owners. Women reported obtaining health information through a variety of sources including clinic staff, their husbands who had easier access to information, and particularly female peers. Most participants considered ITNs very desirable, though not usually household necessities. ITN owners reported more household assets than non-owners. Male ITN owners and non-owners ranked rugs and ITNs as most desired, while women ranked personal assets such as jewellery highest. While men were primarily responsible for household decision-making and purchasing, older women exerted considerable influence. Widow-led and landless households reported most difficulties purchasing ITNs. Most participants wanted to buy ITNs only if they could cover all household members. When not possible, preferential usage was given to women and children. CONCLUSIONS: Despite restricted access to health facilities and formal education, Afghan women were surprisingly knowledgeable about the causes of malaria and the value of ITNs in prevention. Inequities in ITN usage were noted between rather than within households, with some unable to afford even one ITN and others not wanting ITNs unless all household members could be protected. Malaria knowledge thus appears a lesser barrier to ITN purchasing and coverage in eastern Afghanistan than are pricing and distribution strategies.
Malaria Journal (2010), 9:7 [doi:10.1186/1475-2875-9-7]