Lessons from Ebola can help with malaria fight

By Suzanne McCarron 04 May 2015

A young malaria patient is given a dose of medicine. Strong health systems are essential in the fight against malaria and Ebola. Photo by: Novartis AG / CC BY-NC-ND

The waning — but still ongoing — Ebola outbreak in West Africa has sparked a constructive discussion about how countries can better prepare for unexpected health threats. It also gives an opportunity for governments, health organizations and companies to look at the ways we are working together to control other diseases that affect millions of people every day.

Take malaria, a mosquito-borne threat that is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, where companies like ExxonMobil employ thousands of people. And while preventable and treatable, the disease kills more than half a million people each year around the world. Global efforts have reduced malaria mortality rates by nearly half since 2000, thanks to lifesaving tools like insecticide-treated bed nets, rapid diagnostic tests and anti-malarial drugs. But despite effective interventions, we know firsthand the toll malaria takes on families, communities and nations.

Critical lessons from the Ebola outbreak identified by the World Health Organization — including the urgency of responding at the first signs of trouble and the importance of strong data and health infrastructure — can be applied to defeat malaria. And there are some warning signs on the horizon that we shouldn’t ignore.

Malaria parasites that evade the effects of artemisinin, the most potent class of anti-malarial drugs, have been detected in Southeast Asia and have begun to spread. Drug resistance emerges in part by natural adaptation, but other avoidable factors — like the proliferation of counterfeit and substandard anti-malarial drugs — are accelerating this looming crisis.

To understand and contain this threat, ExxonMobil supports the Worldwide Anti-malarial Resistance Network, a global consortium of researchers who collect and share data on drug resistance. Armed with this information, international health authorities can make smart decisions about which drugs to use to treat the disease effectively, how to incent the discovery of a vaccine and new classes of treatment, and bring an end to the pernicious cycle of counterfeiting drugs.

In business, good information helps make informed decisions; the same holds true in the fight against any disease. Unfortunately, in many countries most highly endemic with malaria, health data is often unreliable. The good news is that progress is being made: National and international health officials recognize that better technical data from Nigeria, home to almost 30 percent of the world’s malaria cases, would foster improved surveillance and allow further progress in the fight against the disease.

When countries know where malaria is and where it is going, they can target the parasites’ elimination in a cost-effective and lifesaving way. Geographic surveillance helps identify problem areas; widespread use of rapid diagnostic tests and real-time reporting of malaria cases allow health teams to identify patients and quickly respond with treatment.

An important lesson we can apply from Ebola to the fight against malaria is that strong health systems are essential. A deficit of trained health workers prevents people from being properly diagnosed and treated, and prohibits lifesaving interventions from reaching the highest-risk populations. To address malaria and other health challenges effectively, it’s important to ensure there are enough health professionals, facilities and supplies to meet everyone’s needs. Organizations like Seed Global Health, Accordia Global Health Foundation and the Global Health Corps are doing excellent work to foster new health leadership at the clinic and policy levels in malaria-endemic countries.

Malaria robs people of their potential, and in doing so, hurts families, businesses and nations. Yet we are not powerless against the disease. Coordination and shared responsibility are critical to successfully eliminating disease. We can all play a role. Governments can create policy environments that ensure strong health care systems and critical data is captured and shared; donors and the private sector can find innovative ways to unlock resources and use them efficiently; and civil society can foster awareness to keep malaria on global and national agendas.

Great strides have been made over the past decade in the fight against malaria. Let’s stay focused and ensure we’re equipped to defeat malaria once and for all.

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About the author

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Suzanne McCarron

Suzanne McCarron is president of the ExxonMobil Foundation and general manager of public and government affairs for Exxon Mobil Corp. She has responsibility for its philanthropic initiatives, which focus on advancing math and science education in the United States, equipping women in developing countries with the resources they need to fulfill their economic potential, and combating malaria. McCarron is a member of the Defeating Malaria Board at Harvard University.


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