This February the world marvelled when a group of scientists led by the Egyptian archeologist Dr. Zahi Awass shed new light on the cause of death of legendary ‘boy King’ Tutankhamun. Although it was long considered that the King that ruled Egypt between 1333-1324 BC was murdered or poisoned, it now surfaced that he died of malaria and an infected leg fracture. Advanced DNA analysis of Tuts mummified remains revealed that the 19-year old suffered from the deadliest form of malaria, caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Received through the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito.
I know what he went through. In the eleven years that I worked and lived in East and Southern Africa malaria grounded me nine times. My wife nearly died of it in 1995 and was only saved through swift action by a local doctor on the island of Zanzibar that put her on a life-saving quinine drip. The parasites that got her had become resistant to the prophylactics she took. Although we were luckier than Tutankhamun it was the exact same parasite that infected us more than three millennia later. According to the World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report 2009, some 250 million people face the same fate each year. So why does King Tut make the headlines around the world and not the three thousand African children that die of malaria today, tomorrow, and also every other day of the year?
When the tsunami killed nearly a quarter of a million people on Boxing Day 2004 it became world news. So did the earthquakes that hit Haiti and Chile recently. Although the devastation and loss of lives are by far outweighed by the annual global burden of malaria, the cost alone of which in Africa is estimated at 12 billion dollars per annum, the disease hardly receives global media attention. It is bad luck that malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds. It would have been much better if it would kill 250,000 of them on the last day of every quarter of the year. Four African malaria tsunamis each year. That would open the world’s eyes and generate the public attention malaria deserves. Where in Holland a single night of TV fundraising for the Haiti aftermath yielded more than € 100 million, a full week of 24/7 media attention for malaria during the Serious Request campaign organised by the Dutch 3FM radio station and the Red Cross last December raised a mere 7.1 million. So how to wake up a world that has become numb to the devastation caused by chronic killer disease like malaria?
Rephrasing the facts may help to raise awareness. I have limited each of these to fit in a tweet, so feel free to use them:
- Imagine seven Boeing 747 aircraft packed with African kids crashing every single day of the year. That is malaria.
- For every 10 drugs on the market, 8 were developed for diseases affecting the wealthiest 20% of the global population. For severe malaria there’s only a handful.
- In June, the Access to Medicine Foundation will present it’s new global analysis: ‘4.8 billion people have access to medicines, 2 billion go without’.
- More products have been developed to rid your dog of fleas than were ever developed against malaria, which infects every 13th person on the planet each year.
- 3,300,000,000 people are at risk of being infected with malaria when they go to sleep tonight. On 40% of the planet’s surface.
- Coca cola is for sale in the remotest corners of the African continent. Bednets aren’t. Something has gone horribly wrong somewhere.
These are not pleasant facts, but remain the harsh reality in a world now in its tenth year after committing to the millennium development goals. When was the last time you heard about malaria? Two recent stories became world news: The US company Intellectual Ventures presented a laser canon for shooting down mosquitoes as they approach sleepers. ‘Star Wars against malaria’ was twittered to tens of thousands. Last week it was the genetic engineering of malaria mosquitoes that would not make you sick but instead ‘vaccinate’ you against the disease. ‘Flying syringes against a deadly foe’. These stories bring malaria to the forefront but deliver false hope to millions suffering from it. When I challenged Intellectual Ventures to test their technology in Africa they remained silent. Vaccinating people without them giving informed consent counters a basic human right. It will be hard to tell mosquitoes that you don’t want their bite. And imagine three laser beams, lenses and computer equipment around an African hut zapping bugs at night. The fate of this invention will follow that of the real US star wars programme that former president Reagan launched in the 1980s. It will end in a drawer.
Bringing malaria to the forefront in the international news arena is a challenge. It’s a disease of massive importance, yet only becomes interesting if eye-opening inventions are published. But hope may be on the horizon.
Last week the UN Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, enlisted social media in the fight against malaria. High-profile internet users have pledged support and will start using twitter and other media outlets to raise awareness about malaria. It is now up to the likes of CNN host Larry King, co-founder of Twitter Biz Stone, and Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg to open the world’s eyes. Chronic news to fight a chronic disease. If they will succeed in thrusting their celebrity status to the level where their tweets on malaria will reach us all with the same impact as the Haiti earthquake remains to be seen.
Watch these great animations to learn about the malaria life cycle: