Ending malaria, once and for all

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Tuesday, 9 December 2014 20:18 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to a new WHO report issued this week, between 2000 and 2013, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide and by 54% in the WHO African Region—where about 90% of malaria deaths occur. In an interview with Martin Edlund, a founding member and CEO of Malaria No More, we discussed these new findings and the role his organization is playing in the fight to eradicate malaria.

When Malaria No More was founded in December 2006, what were some of the initial goals and ambitions of the organization?

At the time, the world had virtually given up on malaria. An estimated 1.2 million kids were dying from mosquito bites every year, and funding was only a few hundred million dollars a year. Malaria No More Founders Ray Chambers and Peter Chernin recognized in malaria what they termed, “the best humanitarian investment in the world”: an opportunity to save lives and improve livelihoods on a massive scale. Our goals were to demonstrate that the world was capable of tackling one of the big global health challenges by ending deaths from mosquito bites. 

This month marks the 8th year anniversary of Malaria No More. How much progress have you made to date, and what were some of the challenges you had to overcome so far?  

We’ve accomplished so much more than we expected. Today, the World Health Organization announced a 58% decrease in the rate of child deaths from malaria in Africa since the year 2000. The global community has managed to reduce one of the oldest, deadliest, costliest diseases on the planet by more than half in a little more than a decade. That’s an accomplishment that everyone should be tremendously proud of. 

Achieving this goal required overcoming a variety of challenges: lack of adequate funding, lack of coordination between the major players, lack of a clear accountability and tracking framework, lack of some of the innovative tools we’ve needed to make progress against the disease. It says a great deal that we’ve managed to overcome these obstacles to achieve such dramatic global progress. 

And now the global community is setting an even bigger goal: eradicating malaria within a generation. Doing so would rank as one of the greatest humanitarian accomplishments in history.

How would you describe your relationship and partnership with the Gates Foundation?

The Bill & Gates Foundation is a key supporter of Malaria No More and a valued strategic partner. Through the leadership and investments of the foundation, the world is on the verge of debuting an innovative set of tools – from hypersensitive malaria diagnostics to new single-dose complete cure treatments — that taken together make malaria elimination possible. 

When you think about the digital revolution and how a variety of new tools have now been developed to identify and track hotspots, diseases and other key information for public health experts, what strikes you as the most promising innovations?

At Malaria No More, we’re fond of saying that malaria will be the first disease beaten by mobile. Again and again when you look at the problems we have to solve – from fighting counterfeits, to tracking cases, to mapping human migration patterns — mobile and data are at the center of the solutions. We think defeating malaria will serve as a lead example of how mobile is transforming not only communications and commerce, but also health and human development.

Looking ahead, what stands in the way of progress, and is the end of malaria in sight?

There are still a series of challenges we have to solve to accomplish our goal of a world free of malaria. It starts with a radical shift in how we think about the problem. For the last 120 years, we’ve been playing defense against malaria: trying to prevent mosquito bites and treating patients when they’re sick. But to win the fight against this disease we need to go on offense. That means finding and treating the parasite where it lives – in the human body — even when patients don’t show visible signs of the illness. This shift in strategy requires new technologies, new implementation approaches, and additional funding. But based on our track record of success, there’s every reason to believe we can win this fight.

Martin Edlund is a founding member and CEO of Malaria No More. During his tenure at Malaria No More, he has implemented high-profile engagement campaigns leveraging cutting edge mobile, social, and e-commerce platforms as Chief Marketing Officer. He has been instrumental in shaping the narrative of the complex and evolving issue of malaria for leadership audiences across the globe, beginning with his work around the White House Summit on Malaria. Edlund also lived and worked in West Africa as Malaria No More’s Director of New Programs, where he helped launch innovative net distribution and education campaigns with country leadership and local partners in Senegal, Cameroon, and Chad.