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Malaria Exhibit and Panel Discussion at AAAS Reveals Multiple Perspectives on the Global Disease

After documenting the effects of conflict on civilians for several years, photojournalist Adam Nadel was growing introspective about his work. “I never had the illusion that I would be able to change geopolitical climate with my photographs,” he said, though he wondered if there was a better way for him to apply his skills.

When he received an inquiry in 2009 about mounting a photo exhibit on malaria, Nadel saw it as an opportunity. For the past decade, he has been documenting the effects of armed conflict on societies and was intrigued by the relationship between armed conflict, infectious disease, and poverty.

The message ultimately led to the development of “Malaria: Blood, Sweat and Tears,” a multimedia exhibit featuring photographs by Nadel organized in cooperation with the international nonprofit Malaria Consortium. The exhibit has been shown at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the National Museum in Ghana, the AAAS Art Gallery from 12 March to 1 June, and now at the Field Museum in Chicago through 16 September.

Illustrations on how malaria is spread by mosquitoes.

The exhibit, which included photographs, illustrations, and images of the mosquitoes that spread malaria taken with an electron microscope, was the catalyst for a 31 May panel discussion at AAAS on malaria, organized by the AAAS Art Committee with support from the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. “Malaria: Perspectives on a Global Problem,” featured Nadel as well as Nobel laureate Peter Agre, director of the Malaria Research Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Chris Helfrich, director of the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign.

Nadel said the goal of the exhibit was to educate the public about malaria but also to provoke empathy for those affected by the disease. “You don’t just look at someone who’s impacted by disease, by malaria, but you see someone that you can identify with,” he said. Once that empathy is established, “the disease is no longer a problem in Africa or in Asia or in the Americas but it is a problem affecting individuals just like you and me.”

“I have to tell you, if you see Adam’s photographs, this is what it’s like,” said Peter Agre, who served as AAAS president in 2010. “These are beautiful people, innocent people, probably the last innocent people on the planet in many ways, working as hard as they can to make a life for their families on about an average income of a dollar a day and then someone gets sick with malaria and all the resources are gone. It’s a huge problem. But there’s reason for optimism.”

Peter Agre

Agre started working on malaria research after receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of aquaporins, proteins that move water molecules through cell membranes. “Now, malaria is a pretty complicated disease and to come in this late in one’s career is probably not the most practical thing to do, but with the Nobel, there are some advantages. There are things you can do that might be useful for the community in malaria,” he said, such as increasing the visibility of the problem.

Since January 2008, Agre has served as the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute where scientists are studying malaria from different points in the infection cycle as well as insect biology and human immunology. “I thought I knew a lot about malaria before I started working on it,” he said. “I keep getting astonished how much more we don’t know.”

Every year, 10% of the world’s population develops malaria, Agre said, and as many as a million people die annually from the disease, including many children. Recently, the yearly death toll from malaria has dropped from 1 million to 600,000, though there is a large amount of uncertainty around those numbers.

Moreover, those who become infected with malaria and survive are frequently left scarred for life. “One of the very severe consequences of malaria is an inflammation of the brain,” Agre said, which can leave children brain damaged, learning disabled, epileptic, deaf, or blind.

New medicines and insecticide-treated bed nets, including those distributed by the Nothing But Nets campaign, have dramatically decreased deaths from malaria. “Our mission is quite simple,” Chris Helfrich said. “Send long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed nets to families in Africa that need them.”

Nothing But Nets was started in 2006 when Rick Reilly, a writer for Sports Illustrated, learned from a documentary that malaria was killing a child every 30 seconds, but that insecticide-treated bed nets could prevent deaths. “As a sports guy, he immediately made the connection,” Helfrich said. “Sports is all about nets. All of my readers, all athletes have shot a ball through a net or kicked a ball into a net or hit a ball over a net.”

Chris Helfrich

Reilly called the UN Foundation and said that he was going to write an article about malaria and bed nets, encouraging readers to donate. Within one month, more than 40,000 people had donated over $1 million to purchase 100,000 bed nets.

Bed nets work as a barrier protecting people from malaria; the nets are treated with insecticide, killing mosquitoes that touch the nets. Those who distribute the bed nets teach the recipients how to use them, Helfrich said. “These nets work and these people that have access to the nets, every bit of research that we have says that these people use the nets.”

“What we’re really trying to do is make this global health issue digestible for everyday Americans,” Helfrich said. “Anybody from a CEO to a student can give $10 to send a net and save a life.”

After seeing the exhibit, Nadel hopes that viewers “will care about science because they understand that it’s only with science, an understanding of science, with information, with education, that a solution can be successfully implemented.”

“I don’t expect it [the exhibit] to change the world,” Nadel said. “I don’t expect it to even help the individuals in the pictures but what I really hope is that someone will come in and they will see these images and see these people and then they will see the importance of science and what science can do.”


Learn more about the AAAS Art Gallery.

Watch an interview with photojournalist Adam Nadel.

Learn more about the Nothing But Nets campaign