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How data is helping in the fight to eliminate malaria

Fri 31 May 2019 | Eva Murray

All problems can be turned into a data problem, and the subject of malaria is no different

Malaria is one of the world’s most ruthless killers. It ends one child’s life every 30 seconds, equating to roughly 3,000 children every day. In total, malaria kills over one million people each year, with 90 per cent of cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

The disease might seem to present an insurmountable challenge, but as medical research continues and technology enables new breakthroughs, there’s a real possibility that one day, malaria may be eradicated. In fact, the fight against malaria is already well under way and technology is at the forefront.

A pledge to eradicate malaria

Earlier this year, technology businesses – including Tableau, Exasol, Alteryx and MapBox – combined to renew their pledge to make a stand against malaria by making a $4.3 million (£3.4 million) technology contribution over the next three years to the project Visualize No Malaria (VNM). The project is run by the PATH foundation and aims to eradicate malaria with the help of data and analytics. This contribution will not just go towards helping stop the spread of malaria in Zambia, which was the original focus of the VNM project, but it will also be used to help deliver the project in Senegal and the surrounding countries in sub-Saharan Africa, in an effort to eliminate the disease from the region.

Data analytics might not seem like a natural aid in the war against malaria, but as Steve Davis, President and CEO of PATH explains, “successful malaria elimination programmes require accurate data that moves faster than the disease itself—to help shorten the distance and the time it takes to find and treat cases, and even to predict risk and direct resources before cases occur.”

Technology put to good use

Technology enables organisations like PATH to support national governments and regional organisations with the use of real-time data and analytics, to bolster decision-making around elimination efforts. The Visualize No Malaria project aggregates vast amounts of data and visualises it in a manner that is easy for health workers and officials to understand.

“By understanding how and why it spreads, data can take the guesswork out of malaria planning”

It works by combining hydrological features, such as topographic wetness and the strength of flow for streams, with geospatial data, such as elevation, slope and altitude. Meteorological data is also factored in, including information on temperature and rainfall.

This amalgamation of data allows the teams in Zambia and Senegal to create an accurate picture of how water travels and where mosquitoes are likely to breed. This information helps predict where the probability of a malaria outbreak is higher and enables health workers to respond quickly and deliver resources to prevent the spread of the disease.

The investment will also provide training to hundreds of frontline health workers and officials on how to use the power of timely and accurate data to tackle malaria. This is crucial, as with proper training, health workers in local areas can use their knowledge to run the analytics independently and free up resources so that the project can be applied in further countries outside of Senegal and Zambia. It also allows them to train others and pass on their knowledge, so that other diseases can be tackled simultaneously with the benefit of data analytics.

Any problem can become a data problem

All problems can be turned into a data problem, and the subject of malaria is no different. By understanding how and why it spreads, data can take the guesswork out of malaria planning. We can identify high-risk regions and focus efforts on areas which will produce the best results – ultimately, saving lives in the process.


Experts featured:

Eva Murray

Head of Business Intelligence


charity data analytics data science exasol third sector
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