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Doctors often refer to people who have never been infected with a malaria parasite as “malaria naïve.” That also would be an apt term for the world in general in 2001 when Burness Communications began our partnership with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI).
In terms of global awareness of this devastating disease, much of the world was indeed malaria naïve. Incredible as it may seem, many people, particularly in wealthy countries, were oblivious to malaria’s impact in sub-Saharan Africa, where each year a mere mosquito bite in the night is tantamount to a death sentence for an astonishing one million children. So there was little chance that the public in general or policymakers in particular understood the need for a malaria vaccine.
In the early days of our work with MVI, Burness sought to convey to policymakers through elite media coverage the basic facts about malaria and the need for a vaccine. Through a drum beat of news announcements reporting the progress of MVI to accelerate malaria vaccine development, MVI was able to turn around deep scientific skepticism surrounding the quest for a malaria vaccine, a search that had lasted some 40 years without results. For example, in 2002, we orchestrated the first press event ever held solely to highlight advances in malaria vaccine development.
This communications work was followed up by global announcements reporting results of clinical trials of a promising vaccine called RTS,S, constant contact with journalists on the issue, and repetition of key messages about the need for a malaria vaccine in Africa—even a partially effective one.
The ensuing years have seen exponential growth in support for the fight against malaria and the push to develop a vaccine. MVI is now at the center of a global network that is advancing far faster than anyone imagined possible toward developing a malaria vaccine and making it available to young children in Africa. RTS,S is on the path to becoming an approved product, and research on a “next generation” of vaccines is progressing. MVI also has become a vital player in a growing global movement determined to eradicate malaria by using a variety of tools—mosquito-blocking bed nets, better anti-malaria drugs, and, eventually, vaccines.
MVI began as a program seeking to attract attention to a forgotten disease and advocating a solution—a malaria vaccine—that even many scientists doubted was possible. It is succeeding by making a convincing case that vaccines can help vanquish this disease just as they have subdued smallpox, polio, and other major killers.