Malaria is caused by unicellular parasites of the genus Plasmodium that are transmitted from person to person through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito. Once injected to the bloodstream, the parasite first travels to the liver, usually producing no symptoms. After an incubation period, the parasites infect and propagate in red blood cells, which eventually explode and release yet more parasites into the bloodstream. This stage manifests with bouts of high fever and chills, coinciding with batches of the parasite bursting out of the red blood cells. This can also cause anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells. Severe malaria can cause respiratory distress, cerebral symptoms, multi-organ failure, and death.
200m+ cases per year
400,000 deaths per year
67% of deaths are children under 5
3 billion dollars invested in fighting malaria every year
Over 90% of cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa
Malaria costs an estimated $12B per year
While nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria, over 90% of cases and deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. The estimated number of cases is over 200 million per year, causing over 400,000 deaths. Children under five are especially vulnerable, accounting for over two thirds of all deaths. Pregnant women and patients with HIV/AIDS are also at an increased risk for severe illness.
Malaria is caused by unicellular parasites that are transmitted from person to person through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito.
Significant economic disadvantage
Malaria presents a significant economic disadvantage to affected countries, and is often associated with poverty. The direct economic toll of malaria is estimated around 12 billion dollars per year globally, and includes treatment for the disease, loss of school and work days for patients and their families, preventive measures against infection, and government infrastructure required to control the disease. The cost in lost economic growth due to malaria’s impact on education, productivity, investment and tourism is estimated to be far greater.
The infection process
Malaria is an age old disease, and the Plasmodium parasite has evolved to elude the human immune system, making it difficult to develop an effective vaccine. The bulk of malaria control efforts focus therefore on the Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit the disease. Anopheles mosquitoes lay their eggs in bodies of stagnant water that can be as small as a puddle, with different species having different water body preferences. The aquatic larvae develop into pupae then adults over the course of several days, depending on the mosquito species, weather conditions and other factors.
The airborne adult mosquitoes feed on plant nectar for energy, but females require a blood meal in order to produce eggs. If the mosquito bites a person infected with malaria, she can draw the parasite along with her blood meal. Over the course of about a week and a half, the parasite reproduces and travels from the mosquito’s gut into her salivary glands, at which point she is infectious to the next person she bites.
By spraying mosquito breeding sites with larva-specific insecticides (larviciding), or eliminating these water bodies entirely, LSM controls the mosquito population at its source.
Malaria control efforts
Common mosquito control methods targeting the adult mosquito include insecticide treated bed nets (LLIN) and indoor-residual spraying (IRS). Bed nets are cheap, and take advantage of the fact that most mosquitoes bite after dark, often when people are sleeping. Indoor residual spraying involves spraying insecticides on walls inside people’s homes, where mosquitoes often rest after taking a blood meal, preventing the mosquito from biting the next person. These methods are limited by the development of insecticide resistance and mosquitoes adapting to bite outdoors and during the day.
The method of larval source management (LSM), which targets mosquito larvae in the water bodies where they develop, bypasses these challenges. By spraying mosquito breeding sites with larva-specific insecticides (larviciding), or eliminating these water bodies entirely, LSM controls the mosquito population at its source.
Another advantage of larviciding is the availability of ecological and safe materials that target the mosquito larvae specifically. For example, the Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis bacterium produces toxins that target a protein found in mosquito and black fly larvae, and is completely safe for other insects as well as all vertebrates. This material has been used for control of mosquitoes for many years, with no development of resistance recorded. LSM is especially cost-effective in densely populated areas, where more people are protected by spraying each water body, and its popularity is increasing with the growing rate of urbanization in Africa.
Zzapp for malaria elimination
Zzapp’s software solves the operational difficulties involved in targeting stagnant water bodies for mosquito control. By analyzing satellite images and topographical maps, Zzapp’s AI identifies malaria transmission hotspots — areas where water bodies and human populations coincide.
Depending on the resources available, the system prioritizes areas to generate the most impact on disease transmission. To optimize the timing of interventions, Zzapp uses a weather analysis algorithm developed especially for Zzapp by the IBM Data Science and AI Elite team.
Strategies are communicated to field workers using a designated map-based mobile app. The app guides workers in the identification, reporting, and treatment of water bodies, streamlining the implementation. Data collected by field workers feeds back into the system for constant improvement of algorithms and recommendations.
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