Earlier this week, a new study was published. It was serendipitous: an update on the effectiveness of our most advanced malaria vaccine, published right in the middle of my week-long series on the disease.
I read and report on studies like this every day, but this time, as I pored over my printed-off copy at my desk, highlighter in hand, something different happened. There, listed without emotion in the methods section of the paper, was the name of a district: one of the vaccine trial sites. Korogwe, Tanzania. For once, for me, this wasn't just a data point in a scientific paper. It was a real place.
I've been there.
I've stood there. I've talked to those kids; the ones whose families volunteered them to test this new, unproven vaccine, in hopes it might help them get sick less often. The ones whose malaria rates were carefully monitored and documented in this paper.
They mugged for my camera, and burst into laughter when I showed them the shots on the display screen, pointing at each other's faces.
This is why I wanted to go to Tanzania. I've been covering global health at Motherboard for some time now, and have written on the topic periodically throughout my career. But so often, the stories felt distant and foreign. How can I write about malaria with any kind of authority when I've never even seen it up close?
It's one thing to know that malaria kills 80,000 Tanzanians every year, most of them children. It's another thing entirely to see mothers nervously bouncing feverish babies on their knee while they wait for a malaria test at a clinic.
It's useful to understand that malaria-carrying mosquitoes can breed in less than an inch of water. It's a different experience to see small bits of litter and the normal urban cavities where water can collect transformed into reservoirs of disease.
Of course, spending one week touring the country with my press visa and malaria pills in tow is nothing like the experience of living with the threat of malaria. But it gave me a small glimpse of what it actually means to be fighting this disease.
I'll most likely live the rest of my life and never get malaria. But at least now I know what it looks like.
Travel expenses while reporting this series were funded through a fellowship provided by the International Center for Journalists and Malaria No More.