U.S. researchers have developed a computer program that they say may help in the battle against malaria by identifying environmental changes that would be the most effective in controlling the spread of the mosquito borne illness.

The new computer program developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, is based on four years of observations in a mosquito-endemic area of Niger.

It compared conventional strategies, such as insecticide-treated bed nets, to physical changes such as leveling land to eliminate depressions in soil where water can accumulate. Standing water is a favorite breeding spot for mosquitoes.

MIT civil engineer Elfatih Eltahir says environmental changes can be a significant factor in the fight against malaria. "Some of the experiences regarding elimination of malaria in some parts of North America and Europe and South America in the past relied maybe exclusively on these kind of approaches. So they definitely have a significant level of efficiency," he said.

Each year, Malaria kills nearly a million people -- most of them children.

But Eltahir says the computer program he and colleagues developed creates environmental models for communities fighting to gain the upper hand against mosquitoes. "It is like many applications of computer models we use to screen and compare different alternatives. I think we could bring that technology to look at the malaria problem in Africa too, as an additional tool to plan environmental management to help in those kind of efforts."

The research was presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.