"How can we make malaria matter?"
That's the question I was asked most often as I traveled throughout Thailand and into the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh to study the parasitic infectious disease that still kills an estimated 1 million human beings each year.
But that's not what the question was really asking. Here's what it wanted to say:
"How can we make malaria, a disease of poverty as much as it is environment, matter in the so-called 'developed' world?"
It's a tough question, and responses typically veer off into one (or a combination of) the following three ideas:
(1) As brilliant researcher François H. Nosten wrote in his recent NYTimes article titled, How to Beat Malaria, Once and for All: "Malaria is a seasonal disease; with tropical rains come the fevers. In the news media, malaria is also seasonal."
It's true. Real news about malaria is usually only released around malaria season, when NGOs and scientists push out whatever information they've got in a breakneck quest for that ever-elusive primetime exposure. Would we better be able to fight the disease if we in the media gave it the priority it deserves? Absolutely.
(2) "We need to find ways to make malaria sexy." It was and is "cool" to be part of the movement to end HIV/AIDS, and the lack of something even remotely similar in the movement to end malaria is almost always mentioned. The former was able to enlist celebrity backers from all over the world in order to peak interest and relevance, whereas the latter is still fighting just to show people that it exists. While some celebrities have come out--Bill Gates most notably--to fight back against malaria, more efforts are certainly needed to help make malaria awareness stick in the minds of people who tend to think the human condition is bound by geography. Oceans away does not mean you're out of the fray.
(3) "Big investors have become disheartened by the lack of progress." Research in the field of malaria often costs millions of dollars and takes years to create and then years to apply. But that's also the case in many other sectors. What makes malaria unique is that once research is applied it doesn't take the mosquitos or the parasites long to adapt and create a defense that counters our offense. They are even adapting to the "tried-and-true" method of using bed nets.
What's missing from the discussion? Among other things, the power of story. Stories of all types, be it fiction, non-fiction or even poetry, carry with them a timeless quality that can:
(1) Create evergreen content that can stand the test of time and bolster malaria awareness efforts regardless of season.
(2) Create great characters and narratives that tap into the interconnectedness and ferocity of the human spirit (cool).
(3) Position malaria not just as yet another "cause" to rally our sympathy behind, but as it is: One of the most important and interesting challenges in human history. While some of our greatest minds are busy finding ways to temporarily transpose usable laser-made keyboards onto our favorite table at the coffee shop, malaria is causing babies to writhe in agony until they die, it's ravaging entire communities, and it's putting a tremendous strain on the global economy which impacts us all.
Some think it's crazy as all get out to think that story can help bring an end to disease. Nah. Crazy is dismissing story as an agent of change. As doctor and poet William Carlos Williams wrote in 1962:
It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.
Cameron Conaway is the author of Malaria, Poems (Michigan State University Press, 2014)