Kritika Singh is a force. Of all the people I've met in the anti-malaria sector she is the one that most inspires me. At just 17-years-old she's the founder of Malaria Free World, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to supporting malaria eradication efforts and raising awareness about malaria, particularly within the often neglected arena of today's youth. Kritika is at once able to find ways of relating malaria to her peers (many of whom have never heard of the word) and converse with researchers about the latest findings.
She took some time out of her busy schedule at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the #1 ranked high school in the nation, to field a few questions for us:
CC: When did Malaria Free World begin, how was the idea sparked, and what are its current goals?
In July 2014, as part of a summer internship, I was assigned to write a grant proposal for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to get funding for a new project. During the process, I was writing the background when I was shocked by the realization that malaria is one of the oldest and deadliest diseases in human history and it's still around and killing over 600,000 people every year! According to some studies, malaria is responsible for half of all human deaths in history! I was surprised that as a teenager growing up in America I did not have much knowledge of this global epidemic. I wondered how many other kids might also be totally oblivious to this fact.
I realized that we (mostly the youth) have underestimated this epidemic for ages. Though we have attempted various treatments, successfully eliminated malaria in some parts of the world, and contained the spread of malaria in many other parts, the disease continues to infect 300 million people every year, and half of those it kills are a combination of children under five and pregnant women. After these realizations, I took it as a mission to educate the youth about malaria and inspire them to pursue interest in diseases such as malaria so that this can be the generation during which we can finally defeat it.
In August 2014, I started Malaria Free World. We recently received trademark status for our company name, logo and tagline, "Together, we can end malaria. Worldwide."
I started Malaria Free World with the goal to raise awareness primarily in my community, but I have been overwhelmed by the outstanding response we have received from volunteers, academic institutions, the United States Government, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and international organizations. I am extremely impressed by the potential we have, like never before, to collectively benefit from the vast human mind power that exists in our global community. Time zones and language incompatibility is no longer a barrier. Thanks to the various outreach programs I launched using social media (Facebook and Twitter), we have created 'malaria masters' in India, Sudan, and Nigeria who are now spreading a global message to their communities, including the youth, to end malaria.
With our expanding global collaborations, our goal is to spread awareness about malaria on a national and international level. We have already established programs in many cities in the United States, in Nigeria, and in India. We want to expand this effort so that more youth can get involved in the fight against malaria because, I believe, with the current technologies we have and the innovative spirit of my generation, we can come together to solve this disease during this generation.
CC: What field of study do you see yourself moving into?
One of the most exciting pathways my passion for malaria has opened up for me is the opportunity to find connections between the science, technology and social aspects behind malaria eradication. Right now, I am doing an internship at the Harvard School of Public Health and researching malaria under Dr. Dyann Wirth. Ultimately, I would like to move into researching malaria in a lab and clinical setting as well as working and collaborating on the socioeconomic challenges that hinder infectious disease eradication.
CC: Why do you think MFW is especially important in the context of drug-resistant malaria?
Drug-resistant malaria is one of the biggest challenges malaria elimination programs are currently facing. One reason for drug resistance arises from the fact that many people take insufficient dosages or counterfeit drugs which allow the malaria parasite to grow resistant to these small doses of the treatment. The result is widespread resistance.
At Malaria Free World, we recognize this cause of drug resistance, and in a recent TEDxTalk I talked about resistance and how without resolving the above problem malaria can never be solved. Additionally, we are doing events in India in August centered around educating malaria endemic populations about the right steps they should take to prevent getting malaria as well the steps they should take to prevent resistance. For instance, we are giving a talk at a school and factory in a village and talking to the kids and their parents about the right treatments they should follow to feel better and not allow the parasite to mutate.
CC: What hurdles have you faced as a young person trying to seek awareness about this topic? What has been the coolest part about being a youth leader in this field?
I constantly run into and overcome challenges while actively running Malaria Free World. For example, I have to balance my challenging coursework along with managing the social media feeds, understanding the legal and financial issues, getting new audiences to raise awareness and funds, as well as creating informative activities like malaria-related crossword puzzles and word searches for our younger audiences.
A major challenge is getting people to understand that malaria is something they should be aware of and care about. At school, I have received the question:
"Kritika, malaria doesn't even matter here, what are you doing?"
This, in my opinion, is my major hurdle being a youth leader in this sector--the challenge of getting my fellow classmates and community to come together and realize that in a day and age where we live in a connected and global population, a disease that affects more than half of this population is something to be concerned about. My typical response is:
"Just because it's not happening here, doesn't mean it's not happening."
On the other hand, there are so many amazing, fun, and interesting aspects of being a youth leader in malaria. For example, it is such a blessing to collaborate with people and organizations who are just as dedicated to defeating malaria as I am. Additionally, it is amazing how much I love presenting about malaria and consequently seeing the realization in people's eyes that this is a cause they should care about. Finally, I love the feeling of knowing someone, no matter how young, can make a difference through passion and dedication.
This article was supported with funding from the International Reporting Project
Follow Malaria Free World on Twitter: @mfw_official