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Global Health: Twitter Face-Off To Fight Malaria

Prevent MalariaThis past week Twitter became the newest weapon in the fight against malaria when American actor Ashton Kutcher challenged news network CNN to a race to get a million Twitter followers. The winner of the much-publicized competition vowed to donate mosquito bed nets in time for World Malaria Day on April 25.

Kutcher narrowly beat CNN's breaking-news feed late last Thursday night, becoming the first Twitter user to have 1 million people signed up to follow his tweets. If he won, Kutcher had promised to donate 10,000 mosquito bed nets to the non-profit organization Malaria No More to help protect families in Africa from malaria. Kutcher began tweeting about malaria earlier this month, before the competition with CNN, to raise awareness about the disease.

Malaria is a deadly disease that is passed between people by certain types of mosquitoes. It infects more than 500 million people a year and kills more than 1 million. Every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria. The disease's biggest impact is felt in sub-Saharan Africa, but malaria also afflicts Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Europe. Malaria is preventable and treatable, though, with tools such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor spraying of insecticides, and anti-malarial drugs.

Many bloggers are praising Kutcher's publicity stunt for raising awareness about the issue. For example, the Malaria Policy Center thanks Kutcher, while a post on The Singapore Enquirer calls Kutcher's victory a win-win situation:

“Although at first glance one will find this whole thing really absurd, it seems that the first person who reached the 1 million goal will donate a significant amount in the fight against malaria in Africa…

…So looks like everyone is in win-win-win situation here. Twitter gets free publicity. Money to fight malaria in Africa. And James Cox [the previous owner of CNN's breaking-news Twitter account] laughs all the way to the bank. But this only happens in America, the American dream still there for some lucky chap.”

A post on the blog A Mexican View adds that Latin American businesses can learn a lot from Kutcher's antics:

“In Latin America business can't grasp yet that it is possible to generate loyalty to a brand using social networks…I don't think they should take this as a fad, but they should start to build a presence for their brand, and I hope business in Latin America can understand that, studying the best way to use Social Media for their benefit, they can built a connection with their consumers, as Ashton and other Hollywood stars are doing.”

However, others criticize Kutcher's moves, saying it undermines the whole point of Twitter. A post on A Pinoy Blog About Nothing tears apart Kutcher's victory speech and says this to the actor:

“What you did succeed in doing is placing the focus on the wrong aspect of Twitter. Now every celeb would think ‘hey I’m more popular than Ashton, I could totally go beyond 1M.’ You’ll be lying if you say you’ll be reading each and every post from your 1M followers — just not physically possible. Twitter’s value to me has always been the information shared from each contact. What you did succeed in doing is putting old media Hollywood thinking into Twitter, ie the bigger the audience you have, the better.”

Clement Nthambazale Nyirenda, blogging from Malawi on Clement Nyirenda’s blog world, says that the Twitter competition is more about Kutcher's ego than about malaria.

“I, for one, am completely against Kutcher’s motive. Why should I follow him on twitter for him to release the nets to folks who are suffering in Africa? This guy wants to use Africa for his own fame. By the way, I knew him only today because of this news. And I am sure so many people are getting to know him for the very first time even as I write. If he happens to attract 1,000,000 followers ahead of CNN and the rest, he will go down in the records as the first Twitter user to achieve it. He will end up making much more than the money than the amount that he will spend on the 10, 000 nets. If he really has a heart for Africa, he should send the 10,000 mosquito nets to Africa without preconditions.”

A post on Project Diaspora agrees with Nyirenda, adding that celebrity stunts promoting unsustainable solutions are not actually helping the people of Africa:

“Sure bed nets keep you from being bitten, but what are we supposed to do when we are not under the nets? But our lives could be that much richer is we're earning a living as workers in the non-existent African anti-malarial industry. We could have been growing artemisia and pyrethrum or working at a bed net factory; feeding my family with the proceeds, but alas, I can’t. Ashton Kutcher was feeling unloved and wanted to run a little popularity contest, and we get to be the spectators circus sidekicks victims.

Wouldn’t it be better to invest money into indigenous companies that can make the nets, therefore maintaining a sustainable business selling bed nets? Or investing in the agricultural sector so farmers are more able to meet demand for crops like Artemesia annua and pyrethrum, easily-grown botanical ingredients in anti-malarial drugs?”

But a post on The Content Police says that despite the wide range of opinions on Kutcher's stunt, what he did was worth it in the end:

“It’s hard to escape the buzz about Ashton Kutcher beating CNN in the ‘Twitter Race.’ Opinions abound on the subject:

1) I DON’T CARE!!!
2) Power to the People!
3) Twitter has turned into a popularity contest
4) Twitter is now officially – heaven forbid – MAINSTREAM
5) This is Changing the Face of Media
6) Twitter is dead (meaning either it has caused its own demise or for the more dramatic among us: ‘you are dead to me, Twitter, sob, sob, dead to me')…

…The cynical among us will call Kutcher’s promise to buy 10,000 anti-mosquito nets for Africa a marketing ploy, a cheap trick, etc., to get his Twitter followers to a million. Is Kutcher just looking for more publicity? Or is he really trying to show the power of the people on social media sites? In the end, does all that matter? Not to me. For me, it was always all about the anti-mosquito nets. If even one life could be saved, it was all worth it. And 10,000 malaria nets will surely save many lives.”

CNN will be matching Kutcher by donating 10,000 mosquito bed nets for World Malaria Day. Jumping on the bandwagon are also Oprah Winfrey, who said she would donate 20,000 mosquito bed nets to charity, and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest.

Photo of Prevent Malaria by eürodäna on Flickr.

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