We are on the right track to end malaria. We’ve developed tools that can rapidly identify people infected with the disease, effective medicines to cure those who are sick, and preventive approaches to stop infections before they occur.
The interventions we use to prevent malaria – including long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets – are among the most effective in our toolbox and have contributed to a reduction in deaths from the disease by more than half since 2000.
We have also started to scale up a new generation of bed nets that will offer even greater protection and help contain the spread of insecticide resistance.
Yet, despite having more advanced prevention tools than ever before, hundreds of millions of people are still infected with malaria each year.
In the West African country of Benin, around one in six people was infected in 2018, even though health authorities routinely conduct bed net distribution campaigns throughout the country.
Faced with this situation, the government of Benin was determined to develop a better system for protecting people.
A new initiative launched earlier this year does just that, while providing a powerful reminder that some of the most impactful innovations in public health can be among the most straightforward.
Pencil and paper record-keeping is not accurate enough
Until now, Benin’s malaria programme has relied upon a pencil and paper system for recording bed net distribution.
This system was dwarfed by the scale of the task at hand: distributing millions of nets requires complex population estimates, thousands of frontline workers and careful documentation to ensure each household receives what it needs.
Any gap or delay in distribution meant a gap or delay in coverage, and an increased risk of malaria infection.
To find a solution, leaders across Benin’s government – from the Ministry of Health to the Office of the President and even the Bureau of Statistics – teamed up with Catholic Relief Services and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Together, they worked to digitise the entire process, creating a new system to more accurately and efficiently reach families with life-saving bed nets.
First, health workers go door-to-door, gathering information from every household on the number of people living there and the number of bed nets needed. Then, using mobile devices, health workers add this information to a comprehensive database.
Under the original plan, each household would have received a voucher to redeem for the bed nets they need at a distribution centre. Faced with the threat of COVID-19, the government of Benin mobilized rapidly to adjust their approach, shifting to a door-to-door distribution strategy to ensure the nets reach those who need them, without increasing their risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
With the information now digitally accessible, health workers will be able to quickly identify households that might have been missed and follow up accordingly.
A digitised system will be more reliable for tackling future – and present – conditions
The new digital system will do more for the people of Benin than save lives from malaria. It’s an important step toward a more sophisticated health system driven by timely and accurate data, one better equipped to address existing challenges like neglected tropical diseases and meningitis, and emerging ones like the COVID-19 pandemic.
To end malaria for good, we have big needs to address: increased funding, strengthened political will and rapid innovation to develop transformational tools for the endgame.
But Benin’s new distribution system is an example of what’s possible when we’re alert to the solutions right in front of us – identifying them and acting on them can save lives and move us closer to a world without malaria.