Joseph Mutale’s career reads like many others in the tech industry. He graduated from the University of Austin in Texas, with a math degree in actuarial science, and is now a customer service manager at Tableau Software, the Seattle-based data visualization tech company.
One day at Tableau, he learned about the Visualize No Malaria project, a collaboration between Tableau, global health nonprofit PATH, several private sector partners and the Zambian Ministry of Health that is working to eliminate the deadly disease in Zambia by 2020.
Mutale was shocked and excited — he is from Zambia, and vividly remembers being sick with malaria almost every summer of his childhood.
“I can’t even come up with a number [of people] I’ve known, of family members and friends, that have been taken because of being sick with malaria,” Mutale said at an event showcasing the Vizualize No Malaria project on World Malaria Day at Tableau’s Seattle headquarters on Tuesday.
“As a father of two, I can’t even imagine how hard it is to lose a child who you know has been taken by a treatable disease,” he said. About 80 percent of people who die from the disease are children under the age of five.
Mutale’s talk kicked off a panel discussion about the Visualize No Malaria project, featuring Neal Myrick, Tableau director of social impact and Tableau Foundation director; Jeff Bernson, director of results management, measurement and learning at PATH; and Rhiannan Price, senior manager of the global development program at DigitalGlobe. (GeekWire’s Todd Bishop moderated the panel.)
So why focus on malaria as a global health challenge?
“It presents to us, in the public health community, one of the most wicked health problems we have to deal with,” said Bernson. “Almost 400,000 still today die of this disease. It’s still among the top 5 killers of children under 5 in Africa, and it’s a disease that affects primarily, for both biological and social reasons, pregnant women and children.”
PATH, Tableau and other innovators in Seattle’s vibrant global health community have been working for years to combat the disease, and Tuesday’s event marked two exciting milestones: the Zambian government announced it is expanding its malaria elimination efforts, including Visualize No Malaria projects, to a national level, and in a separate announcement, a malaria vaccine that PATH helped to develop is moving into a pilot vaccination program in three African countries.
Visualize No Malaria has been working for the past two years in Zambia’s Southern Province, where various interventions has been able to reduce malaria cases by 93 percent and deaths from the disease by 97 percent.
The campaign uses granular data gathered on the ground in Zambian communities and combines it with satellite images, topographical data and other information from partners to map out malaria cases and work to eliminate the disease one village at a time.
The majority of the work is done by on-the-ground Zambian healthcare workers who collaborate with the program’s partners to shape the tools and data being used.
The malaria vaccine — called RTS,S — has been in development by PATH and pharmaceutical company GSK for almost two decades. The vaccine was tested for safety in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi last year and is now being deployed in a pilot program in those countries.
Although the vaccine prevents the disease in a large chunk of cases, it isn’t 100 percent effective and still needs to be used alongside preventative measures like bed nets.
Dr. Larry Slutsker, the program lead for all of PATH’s malaria efforts, says the recent milestones are a result of decades of hard work and investments from a huge network of collaborators.
Those collaborators include private and public, for-profit and nonprofit organizations, all of whom have worked to develop multi-front efforts against the disease, including access to treatment and preventative measures.
“That takes a while — to deploy and scale up in a number of countries — so really we’ve seen the fruits of that over the last five, six, seven years with this remarkable reduction in cases prevented, deaths averted and so forth,” Slutsker told GeekWire. “It’s really a reflection of the investment and the partnerships that have been built with the ministries of health, who are leading the way.”
But Slutsker also warns that the fight is not over yet. As we narrow in on eliminating the disease, the challenges we face and even the disease itself will change, and the tools and partnerships fueling the fight will also need to adapt.
The partnership between Tableau and PATH is a good example of how these international efforts can remain dynamic and adaptive, bringing together Tableau’s technical chops and PATH’s expertise in tackling global health challenges.
“There are partnerships and there are partnerships,” Slutsker said. “To me, this is about the best example of a functional partnership operating at the level that we want it to be operating at.”