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(CDC Photo / James Gathany)

When we think of what it takes to eradicate infectious diseases, we typically picture health efforts on the front lines. But data is increasingly seen as critical to ensuring that limited resources are being deployed effectively to fight fast-spreading diseases such as malaria, Ebola and even the flu.

Two Seattle-area efforts, which today announced financial backing in conjunction with World Malaria Day, shine a spotlight on how important data is becoming to the treatment of malaria, a disease that kills 400,000 people annually.

Fixing the malaria supply chain in Nigeria

Malaria is the leading cause of death in Nigeria and accounts for 26 percent of child mortality. Thousands of government, private and NGO clinics are responsible for treating the disease in the region, which is a huge hurdle to tracking and managing malaria supplies.

A new competition hopes to find approaches that can solve this problem by making data more available, accurate and timely. The effort is led by Xinova, a large global network of innovators, investors and tech companies, and is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

There’s a reason the foundation tapped Xinova, which spun out of Seattle-based Intellectual Ventures in 2016. The organization operates a network of thousands of inventors and helps match their ideas with customers.

“This partnership signifies a serious intent to engage worldwide resources toward solving the Nigerian malaria crisis and underscores the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration to address some of today’s biggest problems,” Edward Jung, founder and CEO of Xinova, said in a statement.

The top two ideas will receive $10,000 and have the chance to pitch the Gates Foundation for a grant to test their solution. The application deadline is May 13.

Mapping malaria outbreaks in Zambia and Senegal

(PATH Screenshot)

An effort to make malaria data available to health workers in Zambia has helped the country to reduce deaths from the disease by 92 percent in the southern region. Visualize No Malaria first launched as a collaboration between Seattle-based nonprofit PATH, the Tableau Foundation and the Zambian Ministry of Health in 2015. The project has since grown to Senegal, which has seen reports of malaria drop by 60 percent in two years.

“The governments in Zambia and Senegal have already been taking steps to significantly reduce infection rates, and close to real-time data makes it easy to stamp out incidence before it can become a larger outbreak,” Neal Myrick, global head of the Tableau foundation, said in an email.

Four companies that specialize in data analytics, mapping and visualization — Tableau, Mapbox, Exasol and Alteryx — today announced an additional $4.3 million donation of tech services to expand the effort in Zambia, Senegal, the Gambia and three more countries in southern Africa.

Myrick said that seeing the drop in malaria deaths was “humbling.”

“I was in Zambia in 2018 and it was amazing to see the joy on the face of the Chikankata District health director when she showed a Visualize No Malaria dashboard and said she hadn’t had a malaria death in her district for more than three years,” he said.

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