New campaign seeks to reignite political support for the fight against malaria

David Beckham, a soccer star and member of the Malaria No More UK Leadership Council, stands in a glass box surrounded by mosquitoes. Photo by: Malaria Must Die

DAVOS, Switzerland — “Malaria is our oldest and deadliest enemy. It kills a child every 2 minutes. Some of us are protected but half the world is at risk. We know how to end it. We have a choice.”

This is the text that appears in flashes before footage of David Beckham, a soccer star and member of the Malaria No More UK Leadership Council, who scratches his tattooed arms as he stands in a glass box surrounded by a growing number of buzzing mosquitoes.

The options are to let malaria continue to kill nearly half a million people each year, or to be the generation that ends it for good, Beckham says, before stating the slogan for a new campaign: “Malaria must die so millions can live.”

Wednesday marked the launch of the campaign #MalariaMustDie. Following the 2017 World Malaria Report, which revealed how progress against malaria is stalling and could reverse, a coalition of organizations and celebrities are calling upon leaders to prioritize the fight against the disease or risk a resurgence. It’s just one example of creativity against complacency; an effort to get the malaria fight back on track at a time when cases are rising, challenges like drug resistance are worsening, and funding is flatlining.

“After a decade which has been a golden era in the fight against malaria, where we have achieved progress and millions of lives have been saved, we now find ourselves at a crossroads,” Pedro Alonso, director of the World Health Organization’s malaria program, told Devex. “History has taught us time and time again that whenever we relax, whenever we become complacent, malaria comes back and bites us with a vengeance.”

The #MalariaMustDie campaign launches ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will bring leaders from 52 nations to London, United Kingdom, this April, as 90 percent of Commonwealth citizens live in malaria-affected countries.

“Malaria is the world’s oldest known disease and history’s deadliest killer. Efforts to fight the disease have delivered unprecedented progress in recent years. But worryingly, progress has stalled and we risk undoing decades of work. Which is why we are calling on Commonwealth leaders to reinforce their support to ending malaria at this, the most crucial of junctures — especially with the knockout blow in sight,” said James Whiting, executive director of Malaria No More UK, in a press release.

With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of Malaria No More, and a range of agencies working on a pro and low bono basis, #MalariaMustDie hopes the power of celebrity can drive public awareness, which will in turn get the attention of politicians.

Across global health priorities including malaria, the Gates Foundation invests in advocacy in part as a way of unlocking other resources. Many advocates say the major barrier to malaria eradication is political will and financing.

On Wednesday, the Unicode Consortium announced the emoji list for 2018, which includes a mosquito, thanks in part to lobbying efforts by the Gates Foundation. Like the YouTube video featuring Beckham, it represents the evolution of public health campaigning. From posters to public service announcements, the global health community has tried to reach people where they are, which today is on social media and cell phones, leading the Gates Foundation and its partners to adapt.

Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

The foundation put malaria on the agenda at the recent World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, zooming in on one powerful example of the warning it is issuing for all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Progress is possible but not inevitable.

“Any decisions we make must account for the more than $3 billion funding gap facing malaria control and elimination efforts,” wrote president of the global health program at Gates, Trevor Mundel, and chief strategy officer, Mark Suzman, in a recent post for the World Economic Forum. “Since 2010, global funding for malaria has barely increased, despite the fact that it needs to more than double by 2025 to put us back on track to reach global elimination goals. We need innovative financing to help affected countries take increasing ownership of the fight against malaria. We also need full funding for the development of next-generation drugs, transmission-blocking tools and state-of-the-art data and analytics if we are to regain momentum against one of humanity’s oldest and deadliest foes.”

Exclusive: Gates Foundation hires a new malaria program director

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is bringing Philip Welkhoff of the Institute for Disease Modeling on as its new malaria program director. Welkhoff is replacing Dan Hartman, who will continue in his capacity as director of integrated development.

The Gates Foundation focuses its malaria efforts on three main priorities: Demonstrating an accelerated path to elimination; investing in new interventions; and mobilizing support. Its better known investments in advocacy include major grants to groups like Malaria No More, but more recently, the foundation helped write the proposal for the mosquito emoji, and even gave a presentation to the Unicode Consortium, the Silicon Valley-based group that decides which emojis end up on phones. Its work to bring malaria to the attention of leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum last month represents another advocacy drive.

While WHO tends to focus its efforts on developing, promoting, and delivering new tools, and advising and informing responses to malaria epidemics within country contexts, the foundation believes the value of celebrity could help in the effort.

These diseases “affect the poorest segments of our global community, often children and pregnant women living in hard-to-reach areas in Africa,” Alonso told Devex. “Celebrities are heard by people around the globe, and if they lend their voice to our affected communities, that is a huge service they pay to global health and to those communities.”

Beckham in a box is just the beginning of efforts to come this year, in a fight that Alonso said will be made or broken by funding and political will, given that malaria is treatable with tools we already have at our disposal.

“There is actually no reason why anyone should be dying of malaria. The 450,000 deaths that happen every year due to malaria are 450,000 failures because none of them should be taking place,” he said. “This campaign, and eventually an event around the Commonwealth summit, is a very welcome opportunity to reinvigorate partners, stakeholders, countries, the broader malaria community, the broader public health community in the fight against malaria.”

In April, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the global malaria community will make the case for domestic financing, in order to ensure that proven tools reach the people who need them; that there is investment in better surveillance and reporting; and to strengthen health systems to respond to a preventable and treatable disease. The current budget for malaria is $2.7 billion, which is less than half of what WHO says will be needed to reduce malaria by 40 percent by 2020, let alone eradicate the disease. Events from the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, to the African Leaders Malaria Alliance Awards for Excellence, to the Commonwealth summit, present opportunities to unlock the funding that will be needed to end malaria.

“With progress on malaria at a crossroads, the campaign comes at a critical time. We know how important it is to shine a spotlight on malaria, to tell the story in a fresh way, to get the cut through and put the issue back at the top of the agenda where we believe it belongs. All of this gives the impetus and public mandate for a renewed push from the malaria community and leaders across the world,” Kate Wills, director of communications and partnerships at Malaria No More UK, told Devex.

From mosquito emojis to celebrity videos, these new efforts will allow the global malaria community to reach audiences they would struggle to using traditional communications.

Read more Devex coverage on malaria eradication.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.