Why Global Health Advocates Are Campaigning For A Mosquito Emoji : Goats and Soda There are 2,666 emojis for tweeting and texting. A mosquito is not one of them. Global health campaigners are trying to change that.
NPR logo Why There's A Lot Of Buzz About A Possible Mosquito Emoji

Why There's A Lot Of Buzz About A Possible Mosquito Emoji

Mosquito Emoji

There are 2,666 emojis available for tweets and texts.

Everything from a butterfly to a croissant to a unicorn.

But global health advocates think there's one important emoji that's missing: the mosquito. It is, after all, the world's deadliest animal. The diseases it spreads, like malaria and dengue, cause one million deaths a year.

That's why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which is a funder of this blog) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs are lobbying intensely for a mosquito emoji.

Having a mosquito emoji would be a welcome change, say Cornell University doctoral students Talya Shragai and Kara Fikrig, who study mosquitoes. Because really, using a sword next to a butterfly or a bee paired with a caterpillar — some of the emoji workarounds they've seen and used in text messages and tweets — just isn't good enough.

Now the proposal for a mosquito emoji made it onto a list of 67 finalists that could be available on smartphones and electronic keyboards next year. Other finalists include a sliced bagel, a woman's flat shoe and a frowning pile of poo (which would, if approved, join a smiling pile of poo).

(Editor's note: Because our boss is a lacrosse lover, we should note that a lacrosse stick is a deserving finalist.)

Now it's easy to imagine how popular a lacrosse emoji would be. But why do we need a mosquito emoji?

The idea, say the skeeter backers, is to use it in informal messages that raise awareness about mosquito-borne diseases.

"Not to downplay the importance of the poo emoji, but I think we could have a real impact with [the mosquito emoji]," says Jeff Chertack, senior program officer for malaria advocacy and communications at the Gates Foundation. He helped write the proposal for the mosquito emoji along with Marla Shaivitz, a digital communications manager at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs.

Before they appear on your smartphone, potential new emojis need to go through a process that's more difficult than you might expect. A detailed proposal needs to be submitted to the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, complete with an image of the proposed emoji and a host of other requirements. Unicode reviews the proposals, chooses the finalists and fine-tunes them.

Chertack gave a "nerve-wracking" presentation about the mosquito emoji to a Unicode committee.

"I was strangely nervous for that presentation, mainly because there's a lot of power in that room. You've got Apple, Google, Adobe ... the sort of folks who decide what goes in devices in perpetuity," he says. "I actually brought with me a very large board that showed that mosquitoes are the deadliest animal in the world, which always gets people really interested."

And it wouldn't be the first emoji that helps send a message about disease. PATH's Defeat DD initiative, which focuses on diarrheal disease in low-income countries, often uses the smiling Pile of Poo emoji in tweets, Facebook posts and social media campaigns.

"We've always been decidedly playful in our approach, as a very purposeful way of talking about an uncomfortable topic," says Hope Randall, a communications officer at PATH. In 2015 and 2016, they photoshopped a poo emoji they called "Traveling Poo" onto images of different places and a world map to draw attention to clean water and sanitation.

And like the pile of poo, the mosquito would have other applications. "It also could be used in terms of, this person's really annoying me and bugging me," says Chertack.

The final emoji candidates won't be selected until January, says Mark Davis, president and co-founder of Unicode and chair of the emoji subcommittee. But the mosquito's chances are looking good. It would be unusual for any finalist to be taken off the list, says Jennifer 8. Lee. She's a former New York Times journalist who created Emojination, a grassroots group that advocates for the creation of new emojis, after she realized there was no dumpling emoji.

All the Gates Foundation and Johns Hopkins have to do now is wait for Unicode to announce the winning emoji.

Maybe then they could use the world's most popular emoji to express themselves: "Tears of Joy."

Courtney Columbus is a multimedia journalist who covers science, global health and consumer health. She has contributed to the Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS. Contact her @cmcolumbus11