Allison Tatarsky is the director of the Malaria Elimination Initiative at the UCSF Institute for Global Health Sciences.
Allison Tatarsky is the director of the Malaria Elimination Initiative at the UCSF Institute for Global Health Sciences.

Q&A: She’s looking to wipe out malaria, the world’s deadliest disease

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Allison Tatarsky is director of the Malaria Elimination Initiative at the UCSF Institute for Global Health Sciences. The 38-year-old Oakland resident heads a team that works with endemic countries and partners to advance malaria policy and practice.

While the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic for the past two years, malaria remains one of the deadliest diseases around the globe — especially in poor, tropical regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2020 alone there were 241 million cases worldwide and an estimated 627,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The bulk of fatalities are among children under 5.

Malaria is carried by mosquitoes that are infected with parasites. Though the disease is both preventable and curable, attacking it effectively requires a multipronged approach and substantial funding.

The MEI focuses on surveillance and response, vector control, drugs and diagnostics, and program management, as well as advocacy, finance and sustainability.

Tatarsky is a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland.


J.: Why is malaria so stubbornly present in our world?

Allison Tatarsky: It’s been around for millennia — it’s one of the oldest documented diseases that we know. They found it in King Tut’s mummy, they think it brought down Alexander the Great. … Malaria is a really complex disease that involves mosquitos that are especially prevalent in the tropics, parasites and humans. To deal with the disease, you have to come at it from all different angles.

Malaria is also endemic among other nonhuman populations — it can move over from monkeys to humans. And we think climate change is a potential driver for malaria, going in the wrong direction.

Have strides been made in fighting the disease?

In the last 20 years, 25 countries have eliminated malaria in South America, central Asia, southern Europe and North Africa. I think [this progress is] what keeps us going. Also, the malaria toolbox is bigger than ever before, with ways to kill mosquitos and a vaccine that reduces the burden, especially among kids.

The Malaria Elimination Initiative has ongoing activities in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America. How do you accomplish that?

We are a small team of 35 faculty and staff. The only way we can really do our work is to work through partners across the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. Our group is not lab-based; it’s all field-based, epidemiological research. The work is not here, it’s in endemic countries. We measure impact by changes in policy and practice.

We’ve looked at new approaches to combine interventions to target hot spots for malaria. Mosquito nets are not going to get us to zero. Our group is really focused on looking at more tailored and combined research that will drive global and local practice.

Who are some of your funders?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the bulk of our work — 80% of what we’ve done for the last 15 years or so. We are really diversifying our funders, which include USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and the National Institutes of Health. The Gates Foundation now only funds about 40% of our work.

The social justice work I did in Jewish youth group … that really led me to the public health side of the health world.

Your background includes graduate studies in India and several years with the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Do you travel a lot for your work?

When I worked with CHAI, I lived in South Africa for 4½ years. I’ve traveled to the African continent, Southeast Asia, Central America and Geneva … My mom joked that she was glad I could make it to my own wedding.

You earned a bachelor’s in health science and a master’s in public health at Boston University. Why public health?

It was triggered by two things. My dad died from colon cancer when I was 12, so I was really drawn to health. Then it was the social justice work I did in Jewish youth group when I was in middle school and high school — that really led me to the public health side of the health world.

So you were Jewishly involved?

I grew up in Denver in the Reform movement, and through my synagogue became active in NFTY (the Reform Jewish youth movement). My first year at Boston University, I juggled the roles of national NFTY president and freshman. Most people take a gap year, I tried to do both. … I wasn’t around campus much!

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.