I was stunned to read headlines on BBC a couple of weeks ago that pronounced that “Malaria ‘cannot be eradicated’” and that “Experts say efforts to beat malaria may backfire”
Backed up by a BBC news report, it sparked wall-to-wall coverage over the following days, far beyond the level that most global health stories receive.
This seemed at odds with the many discussions I’d had with researchers, campaigners and policy-makers who work on Malaria, who are proud to trumpet the great progress that’s been made in fighting the disease and are passionate about building an evidence base for what needs to be done to contain and eventually eliminate it.
So I investigated – and saw just how wrong the BBC had got it.
In a similar vein to the stories we reported on in last week’s blog on newspaper headlines, this story was seemingly validated as coming from a special series on Malaria Elimination published by the Lancet, the leading peer-reviewed medical journal.
The main editorial by Pam Das and Richard Horton is entitled Malaria eradication: worthy, challenging and just possible – a far cry from the BBC’s misleading headline.
It contains a great summary of the papers in the edition, and they strongly argue that we should start with containment as the necessary first step towards elimination:
“One practical way forward may be to start at the edges—that is, to begin to shrink the malaria map … when confronting malaria, elimination is worthy, challenging, and just possible. But it must be pursued with balance, humility, and rigorous analysis. Malaria will only be truly eliminable (or eradicable) when an eﬀective vaccine is fully available.”
I’ve read all of the papers in the series, and nowhere can I find the quote “cannot be eradicated” that the BBC uses in the headline.
Confused as to how one of the world’s best broadcasters could so badly misrepresent the Lancet, I asked Alan Court, Global Poverty Project Advisor, and advisor to the UN Special Envoy on Malaria, what the deal was.
He explained that “Scientists and commentators have historically enjoyed creating this dichotomy between containment and elimination. They have also enjoyed presenting ‘evidence’ to back whichever assertion they are making.
“Bill Gates, when making his statement that the world should go for eradication (in October 2007) also clearly said that it is unlikely to be achieved in ‘our lifetimes’ as the tools do not currently exist for it. Until then the world should proceed full steam ahead with the tools it has and invest in research and development. That is conveniently omitted from the editorial. When we do speak of control, elimination and eradication in a timeline it begins to make sense.”
For me, the moral of the story is clear – beware media reports on development that claim absolutes. Take an extra minute to find out where the data came from, and check for second opinions.
In the case of this malaria story – you can read it all yourself on the Lancet, or for the most balanced summary, check out Sarah Boseley’s summary on the Guardian's website.