Living Proof Project Launched in Washington

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Last night Bill and Melinda Gates launched their Living Proof Project, which eloquently shows how US investments in global health are something of which every American should be proud.  

The main event was at a packed auditorium in downtown Washington, where the Gates’ took turns speaking about global health and their personal commitment to these issues.  They also responded directly to several objections frequently heard to the idea that US global health spending should be increased.

The evening included some very impressive use of audiovisuals, using a large backdrop screen – be sure to look at some of the amazing short videos online, which are some of the best I have ever seen.  The video they showed about malaria and children in Tanzania still reverberates in my mind. 

There was also a brief performance by a Namibian singing group called Vocal Motion which had won the Namibian equivalent of American Idol – and they were indeed terrific.

Bill Gates said that it was part of the American spirit that everyone have an equal chance to pursue and develop their talents, and that global health investments are a part of realizing this vision for the world.  He pointed out that US gobal health spending is only a tiny fraction of the US budget — .22% to be exact — but has already accomplished a great deal.

The Gates’ called themselves impatient optimists – “optimists” because, as they clearly demonstrated, there has been much progress in improving global health and there are important innovations coming along that will help even more, and yet also “impatient” because there is so much more that must be done to quickly deliver life-saving services. 

He said he and Melinda were committed “for their entire lives” to global health and that they would continue spending the majority of their foundation’s resources on it.  Yet they also emphasized that the US government needs to do even more to invest its resources. Bill Gates pointed out that the US investment in global health has led other countries, such as in Europe, to scale up their own investment in global health progress. 

Bill Gates began with what he said was his favorite picture, which turned out to be a chart showing the decline in child deaths from in recent years.

Vaccines have been an enormous payoff, which Bill Gates called the “miracle of our lifetimes.” He noted the tremendous success of smallpox elimination, which cost only $130 million over ten years but which has led to savings of $17 billion. He asked the developer of the successful rotavirus vaccine, Dr. Paul Offit, who was in the audience, to stand and be recognized for his 26-year long effort.

Melinda Gates spoke movingly about HIV/AIDS and the need to scale up prevention.  She discussed the price decline that has done so much to make access to antiretroviral medications possible.  She showed a beautiful short video of a seven-year-old girl in South Africa who was dying of HIV/AIDS when access to treatment saved her life. 

“We are hopeful about HIV/AIDS,” said Melinda Gates.  She noted a number of recent innovations that are boosting prevention, such as male circumcision, plus innovations are expected to come in the next few years, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis of HIV.  She also emphasized the recent HIV vaccine clinical trial in Thailand showed partial protection and represented “an important advance.” 

The Gates’ proactively addressed a number of “objections from skeptics.”  To the charge that global health money will be lost to corrupt dictators they said that in fact it is possible to measure results and independently verify the proper use of resources.

To the charge that global health funding is creating dependency, they noted that a number of countries were receiving aid in the 1960s, such as Brazil and Thailand, but which are now no longer in need of outside help.

To the charge that better global health will lead to a population explosion, Melinda Gates responded that she and Bill Gates themselves considered this a serious concern until they learned that better health is leading to better life-expectancy, which has in turn led to women to preferring smaller families.

The Gates emphasized that there was not all good news, however.  They pointed out there has been “little progress” on maternal health issues and on the issue of the health of newborns. 

Melinda Gates pointed out that every year 4 million babies die in the first 33 days of life, many of them in rural Africa, particularly from hypothermia, and millions of women die in childbirth, particularly from hemorrhaging. She showed a very moving video of a man in Ethiopia who had lost his wife in childbirth.

But she also stated that here too there were relatively simple solutions available that could save millions of lives, from ensuring babies are not immediately washed, and instead kept wrapped and warm, to providing expecting mothers with medication that will help prevent hemorrhaging.

“These solutions don’t mean anything unless we deliver them to the people who need them,” Melinda Gates reminded the audience.  Bill Gates concluded with the message that, while the foundation would continue its work, the role of the US government is “absolutely central.” 

The Gates’ called on audience mmembers to help share with friends and neighbors the good news of the postiive impact of US tax dollars in helping improve global health.

See the living proof yourself – with special sections on both HIV and TB – at the Living Proof Project.

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