Malaria in the Media: What We Talked About in 2018 And What to Expect in 2019

Last month, we undertook a media analysis, utilizing our in-house analytics software, to better understand the global conversation on malaria in 2018. Our analysis revealed three malaria-related topics that attracted a greater share of media coverage than others: new tools for malaria diagnosis, a potential malaria vaccine, and concerns over drug-resistant malaria. All three of these topics point to the public’s interest in innovative health product solutions for ending malaria—and, these three interest areas are very much in line with BAAM’s core priorities and key messages. Similarly, the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis & Malaria’s new investment case for its Sixth Replenishment also highlights the need for innovations in diagnosis and treatment. This alignment of messaging from major multilateral institutions with key topics of media and public interest point to a valuable opportunity for BAAM to underscore its commitment to advocating for transformative innovations in the fight against malaria.  

Conversation on malaria, predictably, spiked around World Malaria Day at the end of April. Based on analysis of the utilization rate of the word “malaria” and “paludisme” (the French word for malaria) on social media, we have put together a “heatmap” demonstrating where malaria attracted the most attention on social media across the year. The regions that have been the most actively talking about malaria in 2018 were North America, Western Europe, India, Indonesia, South America, China, African English-speaking countries as well as Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa.

For context, our in-house analytics software shows that the public health topics that enjoyed the most media attention (both traditional and social media) in 2018 were cancer, the opioid crisis, vaccines, marijuana legalization, and tobacco products. Malaria generated slightly less media buzz during these past two years, in comparison to 2016. Today, infectious diseases such as HIV and Zika, and non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are capturing a larger share of media attention. Moreover, our issue analytics tool shows that most of the conversations around malaria emanated from influencers like the World Health Organization, MalariaNoMore, the Gates Foundation, The Lancet, and the Global Fund to Fight HIV, TB, and Malaria. Novartis and Bayer were the most vocal pharmaceutical suppliers in the malaria conversation in 2018, with ExxonMobil also publishing a significant amount of malaria-related content.

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Graph showing the spike in mention of “malaria” and “paludisme” in social media on World Malaria Day, 25 April 2018. Data runs from 8 March 2018 to 31 December 2018.

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Heat map showing media mentions of “malaria” and “paludisme” by country, from 8 March 2018 to 31 December 2018.

Find an overview of 2018’s “big three” malaria topics explained below.

New Diagnostic Tools for Malaria

At the moment, malaria cases are detected with biological tests that use expensive, non-portable machines, making the process quite costly, time-consuming, and occasionally just unfeasible in countries facing extreme shortages in human resources for health.

2018 was a productive year for innovations in malaria diagnosis. The most popular malaria topic in the media was dogs that can detect the disease by sniffing socks, with a diagnostic accuracy rate of 98%. Other non-invasive methods also gained traction in the media—for example, several outlets publicized the development of tools to detect malaria via saliva or even light. The “spit test,” using saliva, is faster and nearly as sensitive as traditional molecular diagnostic tests. The light test uses a red beam of light focused on a finger that detects changes in the shape, color, and concentration of red blood cells to see if they are affected by malaria and has an accuracy of 80%.

2019 could see wide-spread use of wearable technology using body temperature, as illustrated by our new potential BAAM partner, TermoTell. Artificial intelligence offers promising avenues to detect the malaria parasite by identifying infected cells more with accuracy and quicker than the human eye could, with the help of a simple phone app.

Timely, precise, and cheaper diagnostics are crucial as they can analyze more people and give a larger window for affected patients to get treatment—especially children. These tools could be revolutionary.

The WHO malaria vaccine

In 2018, the WHO launched the pilot phase of the RTS, S/AS01 malaria vaccine. WHO’s Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program will roll-out the vaccine in three sub-Saharan African countries – Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya—in 2019.

2019 will be a decisive year for the malaria vaccine. It will face challenges in terms of implementation—it requires no less than four injections—but vaccines are seen as a valuable long-term solution as insecticide resistance and drug resistance is on the rise.

Interestingly, alongside media conversations on the malaria vaccine, we also saw global chatter on “homegrown” and “lower-tech” solutions for fighting malaria. Some of these solutions, such as repellent soaps and creams, can be easily made and distributed locally.

Concerns over drug-resistant malaria

As with other disease areas, drug resistance is a key and growing concern within the malaria community. Studies have shown that drug resistant malaria tends to develop in lower risk regions such as South East Asia and South America. This global trend is pushing scientists to explore new ways to control the disease.

New drugs, such as a one-dose treatment to prevent the relapse of P. vivax malaria, and new suppository drugs for malaria treatment in children offer hopes of more efficient treatments. Still, drug resistance, more generally speaking, will remain a major topic on the global health agenda this year—not just for malaria but also within tuberculosis, sexual transmissible diseases, HIV, and food poisoning.

Overall, the global conversation around malaria has been focused on innovative mechanisms to treat or detect malaria—including better diagnostics, a potential vaccine, and genetically modified mosquitos. There is growing awareness and sense of urgency around malaria elimination, concern over the links between climate change and the spread of malaria-bearing mosquitos, and worry about mosquitos’ resistance to traditional insecticides. Despite these growing concerns, the data illustrates that malaria is, on the whole, slowly declining in the global conversation, making BAAM’s role more urgent and relevant than ever in amplifying the fight against malaria on the global stage.