Using Supposed Malaria Solution, TED lecturer Exploits African Women and Children

Nathan Myhrvold on the TED talk stage
Nathan Myhrvold’s TED presentation (Steve Jurvetson / CC BY 2.0)

Doesn’t Nathan Myhrvold get enough attention? The guy is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, a multimillionaire, a gourmet chef, a prize-winning photographer and keeper of multiple higher degrees from prestigious institutions. As the CEO and founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private outfit that invests in “pure inventions,” he frequently finds himself in the news–this time for an alleged malaria solution.

At the annual techno-hip TED conference in February, Myhrvold decided to up the ante, tapping into the misery of millions of rural African women and their families to wrap his business in a cloak of moral urgency. “Every 43 seconds a child dies of malaria,” he told the crowd. And current anti-malaria interventions, many of which target the rural African women and children who are malaria’s main victims, don’t work that well, he said. Insecticides can be environmentally dangerous and some people use anti-mosquito bednets to catch fish instead.

That’s why Myhrvold came up with his latest invention: A mini-“Star Wars” weapons system that tracks mosquitoes in the air and shoots them down mid-flight–with lasers, of course. Like a Death Ray. All you need to make one is a Blu-ray player and a laser printer, plus a few months of processing time on a supercomputer, and voila!: you’re on your way to eradicating malaria in Africa for good.

Oh. My.

Obviously this would never work. Many malaria clinics in rural Africa don’t even have wire screens on their windows—how in hell are they going to install mosquito death-ray systems? There’s no regular electricity in rural African villages where malaria lurks. In villages like Namacha, in southern Malawi, where locals receive 170 bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes every year, there’s no running water. Most people don’t even own any furniture.

That’s why the international campaign to stanch malaria, “Roll Back Malaria,” has for years been implementing a series of other measures. For example, lightweight, cheap bednets that can be hung over women and children at night, as they sleep in their huts. And drugs that do not require refrigeration that can be distributed to pregnant women. These aren’t the very best interventions, the ones that will definitely end malaria in the most direct way. But they’re the best interventions that can actually be implemented.

Mhyrvold’s no dummy. He knows this.

So why pretend that your useless gizmo is actually going to save African women and children from a killer disease? Because it gets you lots of attention. Wired covered Mhyrvold’s gadget, as did the New York Times, The Atlantic, and scores of bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users. (“I want one!” wrote one typical enthusiast.) Malariologists were called out from their labs and clinics by eager reporters wanting a comment on how Mhyrvold’s invention might finally save the world from malaria.

One, the Dutch malaria expert Bart Knols, got it right when he called Myrhold’s invention “ridiculous” and its promotion as an anti-malaria device “unethical.”  In fact, it is worse than that. Mhyrvold used the very real suffering of African women and children to garner attention for himself and his gee-whiz gadget that won’t make a lick of difference in their lives by providing a malaria solution. It’s the very definition of exploitation.

Worst of all is the disservice this kind of gimmickry does to the campaign to find a malaria solution. The real challenges in taming malaria hardly ever make it into headlines. Mhyrvold’s anti-malaria invention did. But what’s his message? That new technology and cool gadgetry–Intellectual Ventures’ raison d’etre–will solve the problem?

I mean, really. Saving African women and children from malaria doesn’t require new research into cool gizmos. What we need to do is find the political will and funding to implement all the old research that we’ve already done. Like distributing bednets and cheap drugs. Building health clinics. And roads. Maybe it’s boring. Maybe not the best fodder for a flashy TED presentation. But it’s the only reasonable way forward.

Myhrvold and his mosquito death-ray in action at TED:

A Groen Brothers spoof on the whole idea:

Read more Ms. coverage on global women’s rights here


Sonia Shah writes about science, medicine, and international politics. She is the author of "The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years," (2010), "The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest Patients" (2006) and "Crude: The Story of Oil" (2004). Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The Lancet, Yale's e360, and elsewhere.