Why malaria? Over-researched, over-funded, diminishing returns? Rambling on the need for student mentorship.
Last week I gave an informal lecture on survey sampling to a small group of graduate students from a number of countries. With only one exception, all of the students were working on various aspects of malaria, primarily in basic sciences. The lone non-malaria student was from Vietnam and is interested in Dengue fever.
I praised her for working on Dengue. Dengue presents a serious threat to human health in all countries where the vectors exist, but the burden of disease will be particularly felt in rapidly urbanizing areas of developing countries.
Developing countries are ill equipped to deal with Dengue, and the antiquated nature of their health care systems, leftover by the colonialists, means that diagnostics are mostly non-existent and drugs wholly unavailable. Any fever in most of Sub-Saharan Africa is diagnosed simply as malaria, drugs administered and the patient left on their own.
We have extensive experience, however, with malaria. While there are numerous challenges to reducing malaria incidence, preventing recrudescence and postponing drug resistance, the basic fact is that the best way to eliminate or control malaria is to simply make people less poor. Even countries with holoendemic transmission, wealthier people get malaria less often than poor people, and poor people who live in wealthier areas get sick less than wealthier people in poor areas. This is known (in Game of Thrones parlance).
So, as we discussed the topic during lecture, I softly tried to encourage the students to look at other areas where they might be able to better apply their skills. They were mostly unresponsive, which is fine. Someone has to tell them, it might as well be me.
One of the students, however, indicated that “malaria is where the money is.” I couldn’t disagree. The reason that we put so much money and effort into diseases like malaria and HIV is simply because they yield marketable products. Medications for diseases like tungiasis (jiggers) are so simple as to not be profitable, customers too poor to buy them, and governments and donors too distracted by big diseases like malaria, HIV and TB to be concerned with dumping money to provide them for free.
And this is where the problem lies. We have a self propagating system of companies, researchers and donors, which simply float money between one another with little regard for the needs of the poorest of the poor. Breaking the cycle is difficult, but it starts with academics who need to push students to do work with neglected, overlooked or under-researched diseases. Even small grants can support small, but meaningful projects.
We have reached a point where malaria funding for malaria research is yielding ever diminishing returns. Money needs to be put into programs to deliver the tools we have and make ITNs, ACTs and IRS available to the people who need them, who often have trouble getting them. Moreover, we need economic development to make people less poor in developing coutnries so that fewer of their babies die. Human resources in developed countries need to start focusing on emerging (or already emerged but ignored) threats lke antibiotic resistance, Dengue fever, emerging zoonotics and others. That starts with us as mentors.
Infectious disease transmission dynamics and the ethics of intervention based public health research
I think a lot about ethics and ethical issues. Research in Sub-Saharan Africa presents unique risks for ethical breaches. Given income and power disparities between individuals and foreign researchers and even between individuals and local political leaders the possibility of coercive research is ever present. Pressure to produce can lead to unrealistic assumptions of risks and benefits to very poor individuals. Inadequate knowledge or willful ignorance of local political issues can compromise future research activities, both by international and domestic groups.
Recently, though, an interesting situation came across my desk that included an intersection of ethics and the dynamics of infectious disease transmission.
As everyone knows, not all infectious diseases are the same. Some, like measles, impart full immunity upon exposure, whereas diseases such as malaria impart only partial immunity, requiring repeated exposures to acquire full or adequate immunity to prevent death or serious injury. Moreover, as immunity and immune reactions change over the life course, the time (age) of exposure are sometimes crucial to prevent serious disease. Polio is a great example. Exposure in infancy leads merely to diarrhea, where exposure at older ages can lead to debilitating paralysis.
I was thinking of an population based intervention study which provides some sort of malaria medication to a small population in a holo-endemic area. Given the year round nature of malaria transmission in this area, we would expect that even with a depression in symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, active transmission in the surrounding areas would lead to recrudescence within a very short time. Given the short time frame, we would assume very little interruption in the development of immunity in small children and might even see a short term reduction of childhood mortality. Assuming that this medication presented little or no risk of serious side effects, I believe that there is little reason to assume an ethical breach. A short term reduction in malaria would suggest that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
However, conducting the same study on a very large population in the same area might have very different outcomes. Delivering a malaria medication to, say, an entire county surrounded by other areas of extremely high transmission would indicate that recrudescence is also inevitable but that the time required to return to pre-intervention levels is extended. Infectious disease transmission requires a chain of hosts. The longer that chain, the longer it will take for new hosts to become newly infected.
Theoretically, this could delay infections in small children and it is theoretically possible that we might see a spike in childhood mortality, since the timing of initial malaria infection and frequency of infections are crucial to preventing the worst outcomes.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that people should just get infected to induce immunity, but I am suggesting that a study which seeks to reduce transmission through pharmaceuticals given only intermittently (as opposed to prophylactically) consider all possible implications. Insecticide treated nets (ITNs) provide protection over time and are a form of vector control. A medication given at a single time point merely clears the parasite, but does nothing to prevent bites or kill mosquitoes.
Though I could be overthinking the issue, my worry is that ethical approvals approach the issue of mass distributions of pharmaceuticals as a one size fits all issue without taking other factors such as population size and acquired immunity into account. Malaria, as a complex vector borne disease introduces complexities that, say, measles does not. Researchers, IRBs and ethics board would do well to consider this complexity.
I was just reading a post from development economist Ed Carr’s blog, where he reflects on a book he wrote almost five years ago. Reflection is a pretty depressing excercise for any academic, but Carr seems to remain positive about his book.
He sums it up in three points:
“1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire”
Well, yeah. This is a huge problem. In academics, we filter the experiences of the poor through a lens of academic frameworks, which we haphazardly impose with often no consultation with our subjects. Granted, this is likely inevtiable, but when designing public health interventions, it helps to have some idea of what the poorest of the poor do and why or our efforts are doomed to fail.
I remember a set of arguments a few years back on bed nets. Development and public health people were all upset because people were seen using nets for fishing. The reaction, particularly from in country workers was that poor people are stupid and will shoot themselves in the foot at any opportunity.
I couldn’t really understand the condescension and was rather fascinated that people were taking a new product and adapting it to their own needs. Business would see this as an opportunity and would seek to figure out why people were using nets for things other than malaria prevention and attempt to develop some new strategy to satisfy both needs (fishing and malaria prevention) at once. Academics simply weren’t interested.
To work with the poor, we have to understand them and understanding them requires that we respect their agency. If we don’t do this, we risk alienating the people we seek to help.
Spent the week in Kwale, a sleepy town on near the Mombasa coast. The security situation prevents me from spending a whole lot of time there. I find this to be incredibly saddening but its unavoidable. Some people brave it out and stick with it, but I just can’t justify the awful risks.
The Japanese folks are mostly oblivious to it all, or maybe just indifferent. I’m convinced that they have no real concept of threat, given the relative safety of Japan itself. It’s a horribly dangerous situation but fortunately they stay locked inside. Japanese people love to sit at desks, even when they don’t really have to. Japan has yet to appropriate the concept of the mobile office. (Sorry, generalizations abound….)
I’ve caught some infection, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. At first, it looked a lot like malaria, but then everything looks like malaria. Now, I’m just in a general state of not feeling well. It’s not responding to antibiotics, which makes me suspect that it’s not bacterial in nature. I started a round of ACTs just in case. They leave me a bit loopy, but I’m improving somewhat. A malaria test turned out faintly negative, but it’s possible the antibiotics are skewing the result or that the guy doing the test spilled to much assay onto the test. So, I’m not sure. I have a somewhat better appreciation for why the tests are treated with suspicion by the locals.
In any case, I feel like total hell, but thankfully have a normal appetite and digestion. I deeply crave red meat though, which leads me to suspect that the dizziness is anemia and thus, the cause could be malaria. This might be wishful thinking though. I could simply be exhausted.
Kenyatta is universally hated on the Coast, which explains a lot of the violence here. Though people apt to disregard domestic politics when talking of terrorism here, it’s hard to rule it out given the vast resentment toward the Jubilee party here on the coast. In fact, the lack of attention to security by the Kenyatta administration is likely fueling even more resentment, which might be fueling even more violence or at least, helping improve recruiting numbers for Al Shabab. As crazy as I think Luo politics are, Raila Odinga would have made a far better president.
People here are convinced that Kenyatta is a weed-head. “He is smoking the mari-ju-a-na.”
I spent the last two days convalescing in a hotel located within the Shimba Hills Nature Reserve. As much as I wanted to tough out the guest house in Kwale (which really isn’t so bad at all), I really needed a decent few hours of rest in a somewhat pleasant environment. It was worth it. A real hot shower and a set of clean sheets is worth the extra cash every now and again. The only wildlife to be seen were bush babies and squirrels, who seem to have worked out a deal where one begs for food in the day, and the other at night.
Malaria transmission here is low and it shows. Malaria endemic areas are characterized by low levels of education, part of which may be attributable to the inhibited cognitive development of children due to repeated malaria infections. Even if educational opportunities are available, kids in malaria endemic areas appear to have worse outcomes. It’s somewhat staggering at times, after having worked in Western. Part of it also could be the influence of Islam.
I’m now flying back to Nairobi where I’ll crawl into my bed. If I’m lucky, I’ll not come out for a few days.
I’m not exactly sure what we’re all supposed to be doing on World Malaria Day that we shouldn’t be doing every day, but at least we have a day! There’s no such thing as “World Helminth Day,” unfortunately.
What I think we should be doing on World Malaria Day:
1. Reducing ridiculous bureaucracy in developing countries which inflates the price of goods at the border.
2. Eliminate ridiculous protectionist policies in wealthy countries which selectively hobbles imports from developing countries.
3. Encourage true democracy in African States (where it doesn’t already exist) and eliminate unproductive authoritarian dead weight.
4. Guarantee rights to representation, legal fairness, political expression and property.
5. Create a global tax on capital and reinvest monies fairly in locally developed infrastructure projects in developing countries.
6. Encourage deep state investments in health care and health delivery in malarious countries while creating conditions favorable for the private sector to meet health needs.
7. Invest in the development of new pharmaceutical tools to prepare for the day when ACTs are no longer effective.
Wait, only points 6 and 7 had anything to do with malaria, you say, but I say they all do. Malaria is a complex disease, the root cause of which is poverty, the root cause of which is politics and economics. We will never be able to eliminate malaria unless we take care of all of the other problems which create the context that allows it to exist.
Every once in a while, you run across something that just gives you the chills.
“A report presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948 states: “It is not enough to quote that about 3,000,000 deaths are caused yearly by malaria in the world, or that every year about 300,000,000 cases of malaria occur …… that malaria is prevalent in tropical and subtropical areas where food production and agricultural resources are potentially very high, and that, by affecting the mass of rural workers, it decreases their vitality and reduces their working capacity and thus hampers the exploitation of the natural resources of the country. At a time when the world is poor, it seems that control of malaria should be the first aim to achieve in order to increase agricultural output” (WHO, 1948).
Snow RW, Amratia P, Kabaria CW, Noor AM, Marsh K: The changing limits and incidence of malaria in Africa: 1939-2009. Adv Parasitol 2012, 78:169-262.