I recently had the privilege of meeting with a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, attorneys, inventors, and donors at an Innovation Salon hosted by PATH in San Francisco. Our conversation touched on recent advances in global health and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in the quest to achieve greater health equity around the world. I particularly enjoyed chatting with an inventor whose innovative approach to taking an electrocardiogram using a device that uses simple finger-pads and connects to a mobile phone might be a useful diagnostic tool in low-income settings.
Many of those in attendance came to find out how they can help transform health around the world and support PATH’s work to accelerate innovations that improve health and save lives. Their desire to make a difference couldn’t come at a more critical moment. There’s much to celebrate right now as we reflect on the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). During the past 25 years, global poverty has been reduced by half; childhood mortality has fallen by 50 percent; life expectancy has risen dramatically. Polio has nearly been eradicated.
At the same time, there’s so much more that we need to do as we begin to work toward the recently announced Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While cutting global childhood mortality in half in just 25 years is an accomplishment that is truly unprecedented in human history, we fell short of the original MDG target, which called for a two-thirds reduction by 2015. This means preventable diseases still kill 6 million children every year.
As a global program leader at PATH, one of the most important things I’m involved in is the development of new approaches for treating children with pneumonia and diarrheal disease, which cause nearly one-quarter of all childhood deaths. Ultimately, I know that it will take a combination of new and existing tools and approaches. So in addition to improved treatments, we’ll need to expand the coverage of affordable and effective interventions that we already know protect against both diarrhea and pneumonia—things like hand-washing with soap, breastfeeding, good nutrition, clean drinking water, vaccines, and basic sanitation.
Ambitious goals attained through collaborative partnerships
If this sounds ambitious, it is. To succeed, we’ll need new mechanisms for financing and developing innovations in global health. This will depend on collaboration and partnerships that extend across organizations, governments, foundations, and businesses. This is why I came to PATH—because of our organization’s 40-year record of successful partnerships that have led to transformative health innovations.
One example is a groundbreaking effort to prevent meningitis A in Africa, a devastating disease that, until recently, caused fearsome annual epidemics that have killed more than 25,000 people in a single year and infected hundreds of thousands more. Working with the World Health Organization, the Serum Institute of India, Ltd., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and a number of other partners, we developed the MenAfriVac® vaccine, an entirely new vaccine for Africa that has reached more than 220 million people for less than US$0.50 per dose. Over the past five years, meningitis A has virtually disappeared where the vaccine has been introduced.
I’m optimistic about the opportunities to apply these kinds of approaches to the diseases that strike children in poor communities. Today, PATH is working to improve access to proven solutions like oral rehydration therapy for people sickened by diarrhea and oxygen therapy for children with pneumonia, and to develop new vaccines to protect against the leading causes of both diseases.
Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable
But we’re not just focused on treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves. We’re also moving forward with a new understanding that we have to address the underlying reasons why children in poor communities are particularly vulnerable in the first place. We’re excited to be working with Mountain Safety Research (MSR), a local Seattle company that has been making camping equipment for more than 40 years, to help pioneer a low-cost, easy-to-use water chlorinator that can make safe drinking water available even in low-resource and remote communities.
I believe that over the next 15 years, we can—and will—make dramatic progress toward global health equity. Success will require contributions from many organizations and a wide range of people who care about this issue, including researchers, health care providers, public health experts, business leaders, donors, entrepreneurs, inventors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and more. As the MSR example makes clear, the private sector has a vital role to play, too.
No child should die from a preventable disease. As we move forward in the global collaboration to achieve the SDGs, I look forward to future Innovation Salons and the opportunity to share ideas about how we can all work together to create a world in which every child has an equal chance to grow into adulthood and lead a healthy, productive life.
- Dr. David Shoultz is the program leader of the Drug Development Program at PATH.