Low Tech Bed Net Aims High in the Fight Against Malaria
Somewhere in the world a child is dying of malaria right now. Count to 45. Another death. That’s right — every 45 seconds another child dies. Malaria infects 300 million to 500 million people each year and kills at least 800,000 — the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa.
But malaria is preventable, and a businessman named Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is on a mission to put an end to the disease. “There is an opportunity to have zero deaths by malaria by the year 2015,” Vestergaard Frandsen told me at the U.N. Week Digital Media Lounge in New York in September. Vestergaard Frandsen’s eponymous company focuses on what he calls “humanitarian entrepreneurship,” and on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and his PermaNet, a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito bed net is key in his quest to eradicate malaria.
Since taking over the family business more than ten years ago, Vestergaard Frandsen has transformed the work uniform manufacturing company his grandfather started in Denmark in 1957, into a venture based in Lausanne, Switzerland solely centered on creating life-saving products that help control disease in some of the worst conditions imaginable. Vestergaard Frandsen fabricates the devices and then sells them in bulk to non-governmental organizations and governments alike, which in turn distribute them to those in need. As Vestergaard Frandsen says, the company’s “profit for a purpose approach has turned humanitarian responsibility into its core business.”
In addition to the PermaNet, Vestergaard Frandsen also makes the LifeStraw — a drinking straw that more closely resembles a child’s plastic toy horn but is actually a portable water purifier that can be used in the filthiest of conditions, and insecticide-treated plastic sheeting to provide shelter in acute emergencies such as the recent Pakistani floods.
A bed net for every family
“We need to get these out to every corner of Africa and we’re doing that,” Vestergaard Frandsen says about his bed nets, a remarkably low tech yet crucial tool in the fight against malaria. In fact, the company has distributed millions of PermaNets, and it estimates the vast majority of people in Africa are sleeping under one of its nets today.
“If we keep pushing through as we’ve done so far by making sure that at least 80% of people who are at risk for malaria are sleeping under bed nets, that they have access to the medicines, that they can reach the clinics, then we will be able to finish the job.”
Finishing the job is what’s most on Vestergaard Frandsen’s mind these days. “What we have seen over and over again in infectious disease is that we make short term great strides and then move along,” he says, referring to what he sees as the tendency to lose interest in one project and move on to the next pressing issue as soon as progress is seen. “The ability to stick around and finish the job is I think the biggest challenge.”
Integration takes on a new meaning
Perhaps the more immediate challenge is how to actually get life saving tools and medicines to the people who need them most. The problems are multi-fold: from breaking the stigma so that a sick patient will come to a clinic for treatment, to the actual logistics of access and distribution. None of it an easy task in sub-Saharan Africa where villages are peppered across remote areas, and health clinics can be few and far between.
That’s where the concept of integration comes in, and it’s being used more and more across the developing world. The concept is simple, kind of like one stop shopping: integrate as many treatments as you can into one visit. Vestergaard Frandsen has circulated its bed nets through measles vaccination clinics, and even vitamin A distribution sites. “We have made massive strides in coverage in places that we couldn’t cover in the past,” Vestergaard Frandsen told me.
The company’s CarePack, which Vestergaard Frandsen piloted in Kenya in 2008 also shows how effective integration can be. The company set up a site and offered a free bed net, a free water filter, free condoms and health education to anyone came in for free HIV testing and counseling. Vestergaard Frandsen reached its target for the week before the first day even drew to a close.
Funding is the real challenge
Tuesday’s news from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that it failed to reach even the low end of its $13-20 billion fundraising target (it eked out $11.7 billion in pledges, led by the U.S. with $4 billion and France with $1.4 billion) makes Vestergaard Frandsen’s hope for eradicating malaria all the more difficult to achieve. Public-private partnership or not, humanitarian efforts still need to be backed up by financial and government resources.
One of the key functions of Vestergaard Frandsen’s humanitarian entrepreneurship business model is to be able to cut through at least some of the bureaucracy and not lose sight of the company’s core commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. “What we saw last year, remarkably, was because of the mass distribution of bed nets, in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa we had reduced the malaria deaths by more than half. This year we’ll be getting more than 100 million nets out to sub-Saharan Africa, we will probably see the same success in more than twenty countries,” he says, not just hopefully, but with real confidence.
“We have seen over the last decade year after year that between 1 million and 1.3 million children have died every year due to malaria,” he claims. “The bottom line in this effort is about these children.”
What you can do to help
Learn more at Nothing But Nets.
Photo courtesy of Georgina Goodwin and Vestergaard Frandsen