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Guest Blog

Curing Malaria Through Education

18th February 2016

Recently I ran into an interesting Ted Talk by Sonia Shah about curing malaria. Did you know that we have known how to cure malaria since the 1600’s however according to the World Health Organization, there were approximately 214 million malaria cases and more than 435,000 deaths in 2015? If we have the cure, why has malaria not been eradicated?[1]

There are economic challenges. Malaria occurs most often in poor, rural areas. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in rudimentary housing with no screen doors and in regions where mosquitoes thrive-tropical humid climates. According to Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the primary reasons the West economically surpassed other regions of the world is because of Europe’s temperate climate, which kills disease-bearing pests such as mosquitoes during the winter.

According to Shah, malaria depresses economic growth by 1.3% a year. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that it’s already been hundreds of years. Places ridden with malaria are often so poor that there aren’t roads, refrigerators, or nurses to distribute and store vaccines.

Let’s say you address these problems-you build roads, provide nurses, and provide vaccines. Or, you take the solution into your own hands by donating to a charity that addresses malaria or helping to purchase mosquito nets. You’d still have to deal with the cultural problem. In her Ted Talk, Shah discusses her cultural heritage and her family’s view on malaria as a natural part of life. When she told them she was writing a book about malaria they were shocked, and wondered why she would write a book about something so ordinary.

“This has been the finding of medical anthropologists again and again. They ask people in malarious parts of the world, ‘What do you think about malaria?’ And they don’t say, ‘It’s a killer disease. We’re scared of it.’ They say, ‘Malaria is a normal problem of life.’… A child in Malawi, for example, she might have 12 episodes of malaria before the age of two, but if she survives, she’ll continue to get malaria throughout her life, but she’s much less likely to die of it. And so in her lived experience, malaria is something that comes and goes. And that’s actually true for most of the world’s malaria.”[2]

So if people accept malaria as a part of life, how do you get them to go to the doctor or to take their prescription? In the 1950’s the US State Department attempted to address malaria through the use of the chemical agent, DDT, they understood the scientific, economic, and cultural problems quite well. They patronized the malarious societies by not even asking them to help. The State Department killed a lot of mosquitoes, and temporarily prevented malaria from spreading. The problem was the hard-to-reach places. The malaria virus that survived the spraying was worse than than the tame version of malaria that the State Department nearly eliminated. One WHO official at the time called that whole campaign “one of the greatest mistakes ever made in public health.”[3]

The latest effort to cure malaria happened in the 1990’s, mostly directed and financed by people living outside of societies with malaria. They donated and distributed millions of bed nets, which when placed around your bed at night help prevent the spread of malaria. According to studies, only 20% of the bed nets were actually used, and that’s likely an over-estimate.[4] Malaria might be viewed as a part of everyday life, the equivalent of the common cold.

‘Imagine, for example, if a bunch of well-meaning Kenyans came up to those of us in the temperate world and said, ‘You know, you people have a lot of cold and flu. We’ve designed this great, easy-to-use, cheap tool, we’re going to give it to you for free. It’s called a face mask, and all you need to do is wear it every day during cold and flu season when you go to school and when you go to work.’ Would we do that?’[5]

What did we learn from Shah’s Ted Talk? It’s a good and simple message about education. One could donate all of the clothes, canned food, and vaccines in the world to address whatever problem is important to them. Of course the intentions could come from the best of places, like trying to help others, but if this does not occur in conjunction with education, then the problem will not be successfully addressed. Often we rush to solve a problem without considering all the different angles. We assume we know the answer without talking to the local population about their beliefs or cultural views which may affect implementation or perception.  We miss important details that could be used to truly create a solution. If one attempts to address a problem without proper education there’s a very good chance that the solution to that problem will not work at all. In Malarias case, spraying insects with DDT only made things worse.

How did the United States and England address malaria in their own countries? It wasn’t through DDT or bed nets. It was through building roads, housing, drainage, and schools. It was through infrastructure and education. PeaceJam’s mission is to Educate Youth to Change the World, and the One Billion Acts of Peace Campaign inspires change. Often something we view as a problem, is not seen the same way by the very people living it. While inspiration and education are definitely not the easiest things to implement, they’re the only solutions that have long term or lasting results.


[1]          Shah, Sonia. “Transcript of “3 Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria”” Sonia Shah: 3 Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria. June 1, 2013. Accessed January 12, 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/sonia_shah_3_reasons_we_still_haven_t_gotten_rid_of_malaria/transcript?language=en#t-430584.

[2] IBID,… 6:42

[3] Ibid,…12:09

[4] Ibid,…12:35

[5] Ibid,… 9:40

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