You slide into your seat, trying not to jostle your fellow conference attendees. It seems so familiar: the padded chairs in a non-descript color, the small podium at the front of the room with larger-than-life PowerPoint slides projected on twin screens, flanking a panel of industry experts sitting at the elevated table.
This is a most unlikely place for a single man to completely change the thinking of hundreds of well-educated dedicated healthcare providers.
You have gathered in Quebec with your fellow tropical medicine professionals to learn the newest ideas and techniques for keeping people safe when the travel. Today’s talks are centered on treating malaria.
All morning the talks have focused on resistance to malaria medications and insecticides. Experts have shown with pinpoint accuracy the burden of malaria by chronicling lives lost, persistent poverty, and the danger caused by fake medications.
A middle-aged balding man with glasses and a greying beard takes the podium. Polite applause.
You know he has something important to say. After all, his entire job description at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is “Eliminate malaria”. Only two words, that’s it.
You wonder. What will be the new weapon?
Is it a new drug? Maybe a vaccine? Better insecticide?
So you listen.
In a calm voice, with warmth and confidence Dr. Magill reviews our current battle plans. How we developed new tactics and weapons for the war on malaria.
With each new drug or technique, with each escalation the malaria parasite develops better resistance. You realize we are caught in an arms race with a parasite as old as humanity.
You nod. You know all these things and more. Good, you think to yourself. I’m up to date. I know what I need to know.
Malaria is a terrible infection. It causes untold tragedy in many tropical regions of the world. It’s a vicious killer; it’s preferred targets are pregnant women and young children.
In people who live, it causes recurrent or chronic infections and profound fatigue. Unable to work, crops don’t get planted and work doesn’t get done. Like an occupying force; it perpetuates a cycle of poverty and misery.
It’s also very dangerous for travelers. Visitors to infested areas can become very ill and die. They become collateral damage in a war between a parasite and mankind.
That’s when Dr. Magill calmly and quietly explains how you have been thinking about malaria all wrong:
“To save the life of the child, you must treat the mother and father.”
Don’t just treat the sick person, but eradicate the reservoir of disease, which is hiding within other people. Malaria is hiding within the family members of the ill child. And they don’t have symptoms.
People stop tapping on their phones, sit up in the chairs and listen intently as he systematically lays out plans for guerilla warfare.
This is no ordinary foe. It has been hiding in towns and villages, right under our noses. This enemy is well camouflaged.
He exhorts us to root out and choke off support for these terrorist parasites. To isolate and eradicate the parasites in the dry season. At a time when they can’t escape in the bellies of mosquitoes to spread their misery to neighboring villages.
You shift uncomfortably in your seat. It seems so obvious. Why didn’t we think of this before?
For years we have been battling malaria on many fronts- install systems for better care for sick people, better drugs to attack the parasite, better insecticides and nets to kill the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. And what do we have to show from this traditional plan?
Drug resistant parasites that swoop down in the middle of the night attacking sleeping villagers.
Inventing better weaponry is not sustainable.
Better drugs and better mosquito avoidance measures just lead to an escalation of warfare. An escalation of resistance. We need a new battle plan.
And Dr. Magill has it.
With a strangely reassuring bass voice he gave us our new plan for treating malaria. A methodical clear and hold strategy. You never let up.
You track the malaria parasite down in every town and village. You snuff out each little ember of resistance during the dry season, at a time when the parasite cannot mobilize and escape via mosquitoes.
You get the malaria out of the people. All the people, not just the sick ones.
This will take some coordination between tactical education forces, governmental programs, and medication supply.
In those areas where this has begun, there has been a persistent decline in deaths from malaria.
You wonder, how does this affect the traveler?
You realize that some day very soon people won’t need to take malaria pills when visiting tropical parts of the world. That you won’t see returning travelers with delays in diagnosis due to unfamiliarity of the disease. For now you will still need to advise people on ways to prevent and treat malaria while traveling. But the end is in sight.
But even more profoundly you wonder how can you apply this thinking to other problems? Which problems need a fresh pair of eyes?
You realize that how you define the problem is the key to how you design the solution.
Dr. Magill wasn’t tasked with find better drugs, fix healthcare infrastructure in malaria prone areas, or develop new mosquito avoidance procedures. He was given one simple task: Eliminate malaria.
And it looks like he is going to do this by using new thinking.
At TravelReadyMD we teach you stay healthy while traveling. Why? So that you can feel better and get the job done when you travel. We do this by offering educational programs in a variety of formats. Contact Dr. Sarah Kohl for a free 20-minute consultation, to see if one of the educational programs is a good fit for your organization.