08/20/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Zap the Fear

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Malaria is the modern traveler's bogeyman, the creature lurking outside your room, waiting for you to fall asleep, intent on "getting you!" There are very few fears I hear more from tentative travelers than: "but what about malaria?"

This sentiment is both responsible, and horribly misguided. The worldwide reality of malaria is far more horrifying than any individual traveler's nightmare, and this places the tiny plasmodium parasite in a class of human terrors unto itself. Half of the world's population -- the half in the poorest countries -- are at constant risk of infection from malaria. Overwhelmingly, the mobile population of travelers call the other half of the world their permanent home. Each year approximately 200 million individuals become infected with the parasite, and somewhere between 500,000 and a million of those infected die from it. Imagine the entire population of New York City becoming infected each and every year -- multiplied times 20.

If that statistic can't scare you from traveling from the half of the world where malaria has been eradicated to the other half where it's endemic, then I applaud you. Because even though these statistics represent the world's actual struggle with malaria, they don't tell the entire story, not even close.

Dr. Myhrvold touched briefly on the plasmodium lifecycle to make the point that fighting malaria can take several forms due to its mindboggling complex reproductive process. Fearful travelers use one of the five known chemical prophylaxis methods (oral drugs) known to sour a person's body to plasmodium colonization. Personally, I take doxycycline whenever I travel to the malaria half of the world, and although there are side effects (mild nausea on an empty stomach and having to apply extra sunscreen) I would never consider leaving home without it. Which makes what I'm about to say seem counterintuitive.

Without taking any prophylaxis, as a world traveler, your chances of contracting malaria are shockingly small. This is due to that lifecycle complexity Dr. Myhrvold presented. On a recent video shoot in South Africa at Kruger National Park, I made a point of asking all the local guides about their own personal experiences with malaria. Each one said they had lived in a "malaria zone" their entire lives, and each one said they'd never contracted it. Being present in a zone itself is not a guarantee of exposure, not even for those who have lived 20, 30, 40 years within the zone.

Even though these statistics represent the world's actual struggle with malaria, they don't tell the entire story, not even close.

The locations tourists tend to frequent aren't those where the human infection rate is large enough to provide female mosquitos with the plasmodium gametocytes required to continue the cycle. Now, this is not to say it's impossible, I'm just saying it's very improbable. My doxycycline is always with me when I'm in the "malaria zone," but I don't think of it as a medication to prevent malaria (which it is), I think of it as a medication to eliminate fear (which it also does).

If you're a peace corps volunteer working in a poverty-ridden village in Madagascar for a year, you have a good chance of being exposed to malaria (exposure does not guarantee infection). If you're taking a $5,000 safari through Africa, you're much more likely to get a bout of uncomfortable diarrhea. There was a time in human history where more people died of diarrhea than anything else. Even today it kills more people each year than malaria does -- I've said too much...

A laser designed to target/eliminate the female Anopheles mosquito on her blood-sucking quest could fundamentally change the world. It could throw such a proverbial wrench in the plasmodium lifecycle, preventing millions of deaths, and transforming the lives of those with the most to lose.

For travelers, a portable version of this laser would do an amazing job at eliminating the fear that can consume individuals unconvinced by statistics on disease probabilities (many of whom are already taking medication, shrinking their probabilities further). The laser would zap the bogeyman, and the world wins two-fold. Once by eliminating the actual threat to the poorest of us in infection zones, and twice by eliminating the fear felt by the wealthier of us, who could then travel with abandon hopefully spending some of their wealth in the other half of the world.

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