Imagine a disease that infects 229 million people in a single year. That’s more than twice the number of people who have come down with COVID-19. This disease is not as lethal as the coronavirus with 409,000 succumbing in 2019. However, 2/3 of those who do perish are children under the age of five.i That’s 274,000 infants and toddlers taken from their families annually by an illness that is preventable. The disease is malaria, and over half of the global population lives in areas where they are susceptible to infection.
This isn’t an unknown problem. There are businesses, governmental agencies, international cooperatives, and a multitude of NGOs whose sole purpose for existence is to eradicate this disease. The workers are plentiful, but the successes are, if not few, at least limited. It’s hard to look at that 274,000-child death toll and feel good about the progress that has been made. We’ve come a long way, but there is a long way yet to go.
The problem is not a lack of good pesticides to wipe out the mosquitos that carry the disease. It is also not that there are too few workers to administer the pesticides. The problem is finding the little murderers before they can begin their killing sprees. They are tiny needles, and the continents of Asia and Africa are very big haystacks.
ZzappMalaria is a startup company based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Their mission is to use technology to identify and track the breeding grounds of malarial mosquitos. Using maps, drones, advanced weather prediction, and information from the multitude of on-the-ground workers and researchers from many governmental organizations and NGOs, ZzappMalaria has created an artificial intelligence app which, according to their website, “guides field workers in their daily activities, while streaming all data to an interactive online dashboard.”ii No longer will the workers spend their days searching for breeding pools. Instead, using an app that can be used on even the most basic of smartphones, they will be directed right to the ponds of stagnant water. There, they can spray their larvicide, killing the mosquitos before they even have a chance to hatch. Over time, ZzappMalaria feels that they will be able to predict these breeding pools with 100% accuracy.
Because of the innovation of this technology and its potential global humanitarian impact, ZzappMalaria has been named one of the ten semi-finalists in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. The purpose of this $5 million competition is to “accelerate adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and spark creative, innovative, and audacious demonstrations of the technology that are truly scalable to solve societal grand challenges.”iii ZzappMalaria certainly fits that bill.
Malaria has been a killer for thousands of years. Untold millions have lost their lives, and even more have suffered what are often a lifetime of debilitating effects. Yet it could be that with a little time and some good Israeli innovation, the world could finally be entering a new malaria-free era.
i “World Malaria Report 2020.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/teams/global-malaria-programme/reports/world-malaria-report-2020.
ii “Malaria Elimination Software: Zzapp Malaria.” New Site, www.zzappmalaria.com/.
iii “AI to Solve Global Issues.” XPRIZE, www.xprize.org/prizes/artificial-intelligence.