Mosquito SPLAT: New Facebook game to support malaria research

I just killed a few dozen ‘girls’ before breakfast. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant, and after a while there was blood all over the place. But I feel good about getting them – and I saved an innocent baby in the process, and even helped a researcher doing good work!

The ‘girls’ are malaria carrying mosquitoes, and I was playing a new Facebook game called Mosquito SPLAT that was released this week to mark World Malaria Day 2009.

Now online: a game we have played over millennia against 'em blood suckers...

Now online: a game we have played over millennia against 'em blood suckers...

The aim of the game is to use the fly squatter to SPLAT mosquitoes before the baby gets malaria. For each mosquito you SPLAT, you score 10 points. For every 100 points scored, advertisers will make a donation to support malaria research projects at the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania. We also score 10 points for everyone we invite to play the game – plus there’s a link taking us to an online donation page in case we want to support the research directly.

“It’s quick, easy and fun, and a great way to do your part for one of the most serious global health problems in the developing world,” say the game’s promoters.

Indeed. Nearly 500 million cases of malaria occur each year, resulting in over one to three million deaths (figures online vary enormously on this). Malaria is particularly devastating in Africa where it is a leading killer of children. Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies from malaria.

The fact is, malaria deaths are entirely preventable with modest investment and spread of knowledge that mosquitoes spread malaria (not everyone knows this, and as I wrote in another blog post, that’s a challenge that educators and broadcasters are now working on).

McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health: Taking anti-malaria campaign online

McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health: Taking anti-malaria campaign online

But more needs to be done to engage the Digital Natives in this global public health challenge. It’s not just the exposed people in malaria-prevalent parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America who are at risk. As development economist Jeffrey Sachs has been reminding us eloquently, malaria reduces productivity, increases poverty, weakens people’s bodies and makes them vulnerable to other diseases. In a globalised world, such massive suffering in some parts of the world would quickly manifest in different ways all over the planet.

Mosquito SPLAT is a partnership between the McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto and the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign. The Mosquito SPLAT game is part of Malaria Engage, an initiative to enlist people directly in the anti-malaria battle by supporting malaria research projects in the developing world.

Click here to engage your Facebook friends to support malaria research.

Little biology lesson: Usually, people get malaria by being bitten by an infective female Anopheles mosquito. Only Anopheles mosquitoes can transmit malaria, and they must have been infected through a previous blood meal taken on an infected person. When a mosquito bites an infected person, a small amount of blood is taken, which contains microscopic malaria parasites. About one week later, when the mosquito takes its next blood meal, these parasites mix with the mosquito’s saliva and are injected into the person being bitten.

Buzz and Bite: PSA campaign against relentless malaria

We tried DDT for half a century. Now try PSA...

We tried DDT for half a century. Now try PSA...

Today is World Malaria Day. It’s a day to reflect on an ancient disease that continues to kill and sicken so many people in the majority (developing) world.

Malaria accounts for one death every 30 seconds. Malaria kills more than 1 million people every year. Each year, between 350 million and 500 million people are infected with malaria.

Malaria plagued Europe and North America as recently as 60 years ago. Simple public health measures were crucial to eliminating the disease and helping those regions achieve growth, prosperity and stability. Many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have yet to achieve this level of control.

Public health officials have been trying to contain and control malaria for decades, most measures targeting the malaria vector mosquitoes. In recent years, educators have joined hands — for stopping malaria begins with awareness on how it spreads and what simple measures can be taken to prevent it.

The Buzz and Bite Campaign is one such awareness tool launched a year ago on World Malaria Day 2008. It consists of a series of 30 animated shorts and 5 audio shorts called Public Service Announcements (PSAs).

The Buzz and Bite Campaign is the creation of Canadian animation producer and director Firdaus Kharas, working with a team of skilled professionals. Firdaus earlier took on another public health challenge, HIV/AIDS, through his highly popular animation series The Three Amigos.

Watch a sample Buzz and Bite Spot (in English, British Accent)

According to the Buzz and Bite website, PSAs have so far been produced in 22 languages, and are being adapted into more. “The goal is to enable a potential reach of 80% of the world’s malaria at-risk population or over 5 billion people in their own language.”

See all language versions on Buzz and Bite channel on YouTube

The PSAs are available to any television broadcaster, radio station, NGO, hospital, doctor, community group, university, school, educator or other user, free of charge, anywhere in the world.

The campaign is strongly supported by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.

Malaria has been eradicated in many parts of the world but continues to thrive and even grow in other parts, especially in tropical areas. “This anti-malaria campaign focuses on sub-Saharan Africa (where up to 90 per cent of all malaria fatalities occur), on South America, and on South and South-East Asia, where the rates of malaria are alarmingly high,” says the website, adding: “Malaria is preventable. The easiest and cheapest way to prevent malaria infection is through the use of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed-nets (LLINs) which can last up to 5 years. This campaign promotes the use of nets.”

You heard the buzz...Now get ready for bite!

You heard the buzz...Now get ready for bite!

Images and video courtesy Buzz and Bite campaign

Bill Gates and mosquitoes: World’s top geek now works for its meek

More bugs from Gates...

More bugs from Gates...

Bill Gates can’t seem to get enough of bugs.

On 4 February 2009, he let loose a swarm of mosquitoes at the TED 2009 technology, entertainment and design conference in California to highlight the dangers of malaria.

“Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he reminded his audience of leading scientists, designers, researchers and entrepreneurs. Turning to an upturned jar on stage, he announced: “I brought some. Here…I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

Luckily, the mosquitoes were not carrying the disease. But it had the intended effect. Wired editor Chris Anderson, curator of the show, suggested a headline: “Gates releases more bugs into the world”.

Watch Bill Gates’s mosquito moment:

Watch the full 20-minute video of Bill Gates at TED 2009

As stunts go, this one was pretty mild and harmless. There are many shocking ways in which the harsh daily realities of the world’s poor can be brought into gatherings of the rich and famous. They could be served glasses of the contaminated, sludgy (and often smelly) water that tens of millions drink everyday. Or all the toilets could be locked up and the keys thrown away – for good. Or electricity supply could be cut off, or frequent ‘black-outs’ or ‘brown-outs’ could be staged. You get the idea…

Of course, few event organisers would dare try any of these, if only for health and safety considerations. Reminds me of a rare exception: when he was director of information with the UN’s population agency (UNFPA), journalist-turned-UN official Tarzie Vittachi once hosted delegates of a high level meeting to lunch which consisted soley of a bread roll and a glass water. He told his guests: the meal was better more than what most poor people in the global South on any given day.

Bill to the rescue...

Bill to the rescue...

Meanwhile, billions of poor and needy – and not just those in the majority world – are glad that Bill Gates caught the ‘development bug’ and has switched his formidable creative energies (not to mention his billions) to address their survival issues. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which carefully manages the giving away of Gates wealth – operates on the belief that all lives have equal value. “We think all people deserve the chance to have healthy, productive lives”.

They have set priorities such as improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the developing world, and improving high school education in the United States.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently described it as a paradox: “In these brutal economic times, one of the leading advocates for the world’s poorest people is one of the richest.”

He noted: “Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

In his TED talk, Bill Gates addressed two questions that occupy much of his time these days: How do we stop Malaria? How do you make a teacher great?

Look, no computers!

Look, no computers!

He said: “The market does not drive scientists, thinkers, or governments to do the right things. Only by paying attention and making people care can we make as much progress as we need to.”

He called for greater distribution of insect nets and other protective gear, and revealed that an anti-malaria vaccine funded by his foundation and currently in development would enter a more advanced testing phase in the coming months.

“I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved,” he said. That’s the geek in him talking: marshall all information, analyse problems, respond strategically — and keep at it.

A friend who now works with the Gates Foundation confirms how the charity seeks evidence and rigour in all its social investments. This is no bleeding-heart do-gooding or ‘social work’ for its CSR value. The new wave of geeks lining up to serve the meek bring business acumen to the development sector long under-served by unimaginative aid agencies and self-serving UN organisations.

As Kristof wrote: “Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”

Gates has announced that despite the economic crisis the Gates Foundation will increase spending by US$500 million this year.

In late January 2009, the billionaire philanthropist released the first ‘Annual Letter from Bill Gates‘ where he discussed his work at the foundation and spoke candidly about what has gone well, what hasn’t.

He compared his earlier work at Microsoft with the challenges he now tackles at the charitable foundation. “What I’ve found now is that really those same key elements are there. The opportunity for big breakthroughs is absolutely just as great–now it’s vaccines, it’s seeds that have better yield, it’s ways of sharing teaching practices…they will take the same kind of patience that we had for software breakthroughs.”

Just ahead of the letter’s release, Nicholas Kristof talked with Bill Gates about why aid to developing countries is more important during the economic downturn and vaccine breakthroughs on the horizon. Watch the interview:

Read: Bill Gates’s Next Big Thing by Nicholas D Kristoff, published in the New York Times on 24 January 2009

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