Can Social Nets Help Fight Disease?

By Reuters  |  Posted 04-21-2008 Print Email

UK entrepreneur, now at Harvard, looks to the Internet to fight malaria.  

The British entrepreneur who sold a soccer Web site at the age of 17 for $40 million has switched his attention to help launch a social networking site on Sunday designed to fight malaria.

Tom Hadfield set up Soccer.net in his bedroom before selling it to U.S. sports network ESPN, but now hopes the power of sites such as Facebook can curb a disease that kills an estimated one million people a year, many of them in Africa.

"I believe in the power of friends telling friends telling friends," said self-styled part-time student and full-time entrepreneur Hadfield. "Our dream is tens of thousands of people will use social networking tools to build a movement that eradicates malaria."

Now 25 and a fourth-year political science student at Harvard university, Hadfield came up with the idea for www.MalariaEngage.org after a trip to Zambia last summer that gave him a close-up look at the mosquito-born disease.

"Traveling across Africa and seeing the devastation caused by malaria made me realize there was more to life than putting up soccer scores," Hadfield said. "Everyone I met at an aid project making mosquito nets in Zambia had either lost a child to malaria or knew someone who had."

Hadfield then traveled to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where he met researchers working on malaria treatments and discovered that their efforts were being held back by a lack of resources.

"It's shocking that thousands of people are dying every day from a preventable disease," said Hadfield, who was honored as Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2001. "When I came back from Africa last summer, a lot of people asked me what they can do to help."

The site encourages people to donate $10 or more to help support seven different research projects in Tanzania, such as developing plants like lemongrass to repel mosquitoes. But Hadfield sees MalariaEngage.org as more than a fundraising tool.

"MalariaEngage.org increases the return on investment of donors by connecting them directly with researchers working on malaria prevention treatment," he said. "It's about more than about giving money -- it's about creating connections. By encouraging individual participation and involvement, we will create international communities of common interest. This is the essence of social networking."

The seven projects were recommended by Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research and once those have been funded, MalariaEngage.org will look to support new schemes across developing countries.

Due to marry in November, Hadfield co-founded the site with health professors Peter A. Singer and Abdallah S. Daar at Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at University Health Network as well as the University of Toronto.

"We feel young African scientists have very good ideas that end up in the dustbin," Singer said. "This is about helping committed young researchers with good ideas to help themselves create a better future."

 



 

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