Advice from a journalist covering global health

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Photo: Dan Blah via Flickr

Amy Maxmen, a San-Francisco-based science reporter for Nature magazine, travels the world to cover global health topics. In 2018, her work took her to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand to cover the rising number of malaria deaths in Southeast Asia.

Her story “Malaria’s Ticking Time Bomb,” won first place in AHCJ’s 2018 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for a public health story published in the small market category. The article deftly blended plain English with scientific jargon to tell the story of scientists and public health workers efforts to eliminate malaria in Southeast Asia, as they contend with volatile political situations.

In the piece, Maxmen quickly gets to the point of why people should care about malaria in Southeast Asia. She says that malaria remains one of the biggest killers in low-income countries, and malaria in the region is becoming resistant to all drug treatments, stoking fears that malaria could surge globally.

About a half million people die from malaria annually, and many are children younger than five. With climate change, international travel, deforestation and urban population growth, the geography of mosquito-borne diseases is expanding and diseases like malaria threaten a growing the number of people. If more malaria parasites become resistant to treatment, more people are likely to die of the disease.

Amy Maxmen

Amy Maxmen

Among the scientists and public health workers that are working in the region and highlighted by Maxmen is Myaing Nyunt. She is a scientist and political dissident who fled from Myanmar’s military government in 1988, and is now a malaria researcher at Duke Global Health Institute in Durham, N.C. She returned to Myanmar to work with the Myanmar Vector-Borne Disease Control department, because of the imperative of preventing malaria. She is refreshingly frank with Maxmen and talks about the challenges of working with Myamar’s government.

Because Maxmen was on the ground in Myanmar, she was able to spend time with Nyunt and her team and see how they were trying to address malaria. In Cambodia, she was able to meet with health workers stationed in rural villages. She also met with a molecular biologist in Thailand who is working on new diagnostic tools to screen for malaria.

Her story illustrated how close the world might be to a bigger malaria outbreak.

“What I found worried me,” Maxmen told AHCJ in her awards submission. “Researchers recently discovered that diagnostic tests only detect a small fraction of symptomatic cases.”

Maxmen talked more about her story in this new “How I Did It” piece and she offers advice for those traveling on a reporting assignment.

“Make plans, but expect them to change,” she says. “If the reporting is going badly, move on. If it’s going well, stay longer.”

Meanwhile, Maxmen continues to travel. This month, she traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with World Health Organization officials as they assessed the Ebola outbreak that had killed more than 2,000 since 2018. See her story: “Meet the Ebola workers battling the virus in a war zone.”

And click here for “How I Did It.” And here for “Shared Wisdom.”

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