Dr Jennifer Gardy
Deputy Director of Surveillance, Data and Epidemiology, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Since the discovery of the first vaccine in the 18th century, every hundred years has been marked by a transformational public health innovation. In the 19th century it was improved sanitation, followed by the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century.
This century, data is revolutionising how we track, prevent and treat disease, enabling public health authorities to make precise, real-time decisions that save lives.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of diverse data types to help researchers better understand the epidemiology of a disease and develop more effective health interventions. Importantly, data innovations not only improve our collective ability to rapidly respond to disease emergencies, but they can also accelerate our efforts to eliminate existing disease threats like malaria.
Using data to get back on track
Progress against malaria has slowed in recent years, following two decades of historic declines. To get back on track, it’s vital to address high-burden areas while more efficiently using limited resources. This requires tailoring malaria strategies to local epidemiology and the unique needs of individual districts. The data innovations used for COVID-19 can help make that possible.
Genetic data from mosquitos can tell a story about the intensity of malaria transmission and help track drug and insecticide resistance, while satellite data can identify households for bed net distribution and indoor residual spraying (IRS) campaigns. Once captured, this data can power disease models that forecast the optimal mix of interventions for individual communities, enhancing the ability to detect, prevent and treat malaria.
It’s vital to ensure innovations endure and boost the fight against other diseases like malaria.
Measuring potential impact of COVID-19
We saw the potential of this approach last year when the Malaria Atlas Project developed models in high-burden countries to project the impact of COVID-19 on malaria programs and help reduce disruption of essential services. Initiatives from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA), to increase capacity for genetic sequencing and innovative vector control, hold even greater promise for the future.
Global emergencies like COVID-19 spur innovation, as the world seeks solutions to a deadly new threat. It’s vital to ensure those innovations endure and boost the fight against other diseases like malaria, which will remain an emergency for nearly half the world’s population long after the pandemic fades.