Published online 22 April 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.768

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Social networking site aims to help fight malaria

New website gives smaller African projects a bigger profile.

Visitors to the website can view details of a range of projects based in Tanzania.

The Internet is great for sharing links with your friends, getting information from distant lands, and, of course, spending money. Now a website is aiming to take advantage of all of these in a bid to raise the profile of African scientists working at the grassroots of the fight against malaria.

The website, MalariaEngage.org, showcases the efforts of a range of small research projects that may otherwise be overlooked by the global philanthropic efforts now under way to beat the disease, which claims more than a million lives every year. It has been launched in time to be up and running for World Malaria Day on 25 April.

Visitors to the website can view details of a range of projects based in Tanzania, and decide which to donate money to. The organizers are asking for pledges of US$10 or more, which will go towards the seven projects currently sponsored, and which have budgets of between £10,000 and $50,000.

It’s a world away from the estimated $3.6 billion total pledged to malaria research by big philanthropic organizations such as the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But the new website is trying to reach African researchers who are not currently getting funding; “Young scientists with bright ideas that at the moment are going into the dustbin,” says Peter Singer, a medical ethicist at the University of Toronto and one of the team behind the new site. “It’s not just about money,” he adds, but about “fostering direct engagement” between donators and specific local projects.

“It’s great to have a place where you can donate to R&D [research and development] rather than just bednets,” says Anna Wang, public affairs officer with the Medicines for Malaria Venture in Geneva. “R&D isn’t the sexiest area for donations, usually.” But, she adds, it is hard for a layperson using the site to assess the importance of the research being proposed: “There isn’t much detail about the projects and it’s hard to know their scientific merit,” she says.

Singer says they chose a well-respected institution for the pilot phase of the site – Tanzania’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) – and relied on them to use their own peer-review process to select projects. “We respect African scientific leadership,” he says. Jo Lines, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says he’d like to see broader peer review and ethical review by an independent committee to help ensure that none of the donated money goes to waste.

Fantastic four

Well-funded malaria efforts, such as the Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa (MACEPA), focus on four key strategies: providing insecticide-treated bednets; improving access to the best available artemisinin-based drug therapies; spraying of urban areas with pesticide; and routine treatment of pregnant women to protect children.

But the focus on these strategies, although approved by the World Health Organization as the most effective way to combat rates of malaria, can leave researchers without funding to pursue other ideas. “At the moment there’s a lot of wasted talent and wasted ideas in malaria,” Singer says. And those other ideas are necessary to keep the field moving forward, argues Singer’s colleague Abdallah Daar: “If you think only of bednets, then in 20 years’ time you’ll only be thinking of bednets.”

“The research questions asked by the projects described on the website are very important, and are not being asked by the big global players, such as Gates and the Global Fund,” says Lines. Among the seven projects featured on the website are those to improve the performance of bednets and malaria drugs. But the site also features projects to study how traditional African medics can engage with modern malaria treatments, and how to develop plants that repel mosquitoes from local communities.

Hamisi Malebo, a researcher with the NIMR who is leading the project to investigate these mosquito-repelling plants, explains that residents of a refugee camp in Tanzania’s Ngara district suffered less malaria if they grew plants such as American basil near to their homes. With enough funding, he hopes to set up a plant nursery in north-eastern Tanzania to test eight different plants.

“More to life than soccer”

The project’s organizers chose Tanzania because of the experience of Tom Hadfield, a British Internet entrepreneur better known for developing a website called Soccernet, which he sold to the US sports giant ESPN for $40 million at the age of just 17.

After his dotcom success, he travelled to Tanzania and saw the suffering caused by malaria. “At some point I realised there was more to life than putting up football scores on the Internet,” he says. “When I came back from Tanzania, a lot of my friends were asking me what they could do to help.”

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The new site is an attempt to use the social networking power of the Internet to allow people to share details of the research projects and encourage their friends to get involved. Donors, for example, can link to the website via their Facebook profile. “I believe in the power of friends talking to friends — it’s a very viral approach,” Hadfield says.

The organizers are hoping to expand beyond Tanzania and sponsor research projects in other African countries. Singer says they will be guided by the recommendations of national-health institutions and the scientists who work for them. 

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