Malaria research and control by press release

I’m torn about press releases of scientific and programmatic work.

On one hand issuing press releases rapidly disseminates findings, generates interest, and helps reach new audiences. Every institution, whether a university, NGO, or even a multilateral, has to maintain a supportive constituency and most will seek to ever expand this base. The pressure to leverage every piece of potential news is therefore great.

On the other hand many press releases are about early stage findings which may not matter. Everyday I see new articles about malaria drug targets or bed net distribution which are heralded as ‘breakthroughs’ in the effort to cure or control malaria. They may be right but we won’t know for many years. It seems that  the deluge of press releases, which often in their original form or in their retelling misstate the research, unduly raise expectations. It also raises overall noise level of information vying for our attention – making it harder to find and focus on the news which really matters. In the end, too much public relations spin risks credibility.

Effect Measure, a terrific public health blog, wrote the following three years back:

Science is a slow business, unfortunately and we will need time. So I don’t understand why NIH has to issue a press release about it. It’s not exactly breaking news that will make an immediate difference if it makes a difference at all. I understand why various biotech companies pull this kind of PR stunt. They are trying to raise venture capital and reassure stockholders. But why does NIH need to do this?


5 Responses to “Malaria research and control by press release”

  1. 1 Bill Brieger April 8, 2010 at 1:34 am

    Agreed – Universities and Corporations have communications offices that disseminate these press releases in part, one suspects, to let research funders know they are making progress, and attracting new funding sources, no matter how far that ‘progress’ goes toward finding practical tools to eliminate malaria. Many of the ‘breakthoughs’ of today will may not have practical application until after 2015 when one hopes that most countries are heading down the road to elimination. The types of interventions needed after 2015 will likely be quite different than those used today to achieve universal coverage (UC). Even the much hoped for malaria vaccines are still in various phases of clinical trials – though when they are ready, they may be targeted better assuming UC has brought down disease burden. Based on the Nairobi MIM conference last November, we might take a kinder view – malaria research does need to be sustained until elimination in order for us not to be ‘surprised’ by setbacks as happened during the first effort at eradication. What is even more important that discovering new genes, chemicals and potions for malaria is operations research that can tell us how to achieve implementation of what tools we already have? These efforts do not seem to be getting as much of the press release spotlight.

  2. 2 naman April 8, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Bill – thanks for the thoughtful response. It is true that we will need new interventions in the future. I like your point that there may be a distorted priority in malaria research which discounts operational research.

  3. 3 MalariaWorld April 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    I am very happy to read that your blogging about this topic. I am following the malaria news closely for MalariaWorld and the number and content of press releases absolutely amazes me.

    Since you are both members of MalariaWorld, I would like to invite you to post this blog on the MalariaWorld platform and see if we can get this discussion going among our 5700 members.

    If you go to the platform and log-in to your account, you’ll be able to post your blog there. If you have any questions, just let me know.

    Last week another discussion was also started on the platform about learning from the past. You might be interested in reading and commenting on this as well.


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