47th Union World Conference on Lung Health: Soft drink company takes the challenge to build a new Pepsi generation

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Science Speaks is in Liverpool this week covering developments and impacts in global tuberculosis research, programming and funding.

Science Speaks is in Liverpool between Oct. 26 -29, covering developments and impacts in global tuberculosis research, programming and funding at the 47th Union World Conference on Lung Health.

LIVERPOOL, England – People have a limited ability to taste sweet things. Cats, it turns out don’t have any. On the other hand, we humans have 22 taste receptors for bitterness. But all of that can be overcome by science.

These are some of the things you learn when a company in the business of marketing soft drinks teams up with a public health effort. And it was the introduction to a bit of bright news for children in places with high rates of tuberculosis,  imparted by a self-described “food and beverage executive” from Pepsico, at the beginning of a science-driven session here Thursday.

The late Zambian HIV and tuberculosis treatment activist Winstone Zulu is one of the people credited over the years with observing that while one can buy a Coca Cola almost anywhere in Africa, it wasn’t so easy to find tuberculosis medicine. A few years ago the soft drink company got the hint and applied its logistic, supply chain, and marketing expertise to medicine distribution in a collaboration with USAID, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve access to life saving medicines, including antiretroviral and tuberculosis drugs in remote regions of African countries.

Now Pepsico has taken the next step in soft drink health diplomacy with a collaboration between Pepsico and the TB Alliance, to improve treatment for children with TB.

The obstacles that the grown up world allows to stand between children and treatment are numerous. Children are harder to diagnose, and since they are not major contributors to transmission of the disease, reaching them has been a low priority among national tuberculosis programs. No one likes to think about that, but it continues down the chain of responsibility that children rely on to grow up. The price that children pay for being a small market continues with treatment. As pharmaceutical developers have not tailored the medicine to children, that falls to families, who cut and crush pills that then are unpalatably bitter. That’s where Pepsi comes in.

No, a spokeswoman for TB Alliance emphasizes, the company is not going to add a sugar-laden soft drink habit to the problems facing children with tuberculosis. Rather, it will contribute the knowledge it has applied to its own endeavors, which, Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Mehmood Khan noted Thursday evening here, include how to make a tasty product healthier, as well as how to make a healthy product more desirable.

And, in their partnership with TB Alliance, they will do it for free. The company that, over the years, has urged consumers to “come alive,” and “join the Pepsi Generation” is giving open access to its findings to the nonprofit organization that works to find improved accessible drug regimens to fight tuberculosis worldwide.

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