U.S. support key to recent breakthroughs in global health science

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The following is a guest post by Kaitlin Christenson, director of the Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC), a group of more than 30 nonprofit organizations working to increase awareness of the urgent need for tools that save lives in the developing world.

The news briefings in London and Geneva earlier this week were thrilling: the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it endorsed a new, faster diagnostic test for TB. The test could transform TB care and control by giving results that detect a drug-resistant form of the disease in less than two hours, compared with current tests that can take up to three months.

But what’s also critical, although often overlooked, is one of the funding sources: the U.S. government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This test was co-developed by GHTC member Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) in conjunction with several other groups that received NIH funding to develop this ground-breaking tool. The development of this test offers a glimpse into the true nature of innovation and the value of creative thinking: it was initially developed for the U.S. Postal Service to help postal workers check for anthrax contamination in the mail.

The breakthrough shows the enormous value of U.S. support for medical innovation, as this tool can help both American workers and people at risk of TB around the world.  

It’s been a monumental year for scientific achievements in global health. Trials of new HIV prevention technologies—a vaginal gel and a pill for prevention—have shown promising results. New vaccines for tuberculosis, malaria, and dengue fever are on the cusp of development, and new collaborations have formed to help advance other needed tools.

Also this week, a new meningitis vaccine—the first-ever vaccine made specifically for Africa—was distributed for the first time on Monday in Burkina Faso. Type A meningitis, the target of the new vaccine, kills one in 10 people who become infected. I was particularly struck by a story that Dr. Marc LaForce, head of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, recently told about the far-reaching impact of the disease: an African young man killed not by the disease itself, but because meningitis had rendered him deaf and he didn’t hear an approaching truck.

The new meningitis vaccine could help save millions in Africa from a similar fate. And it would not be available today if it weren’t for the support of the U.S. government. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provided access to the much-needed and highly protected medical technology, and scientists at the NIH also helped to transfer this prized technology at almost no cost.     

The new TB diagnostic tool, the meningitis vaccine and the new HIV prevention tools all show the American commitment to global health research, as well as some measures of global support. U.S. agencies like the CDC and NIH have supported many of these recent achievements. It is imperative that this support continues. U.S. policymakers should ensure that federal agencies engaged in global health research are fully funded so they can carry on this lifesaving work. Doing so can give us all hope that groundbreaking achievements in global health research—like those we saw this week, and others that are so desperately needed—will continue into the future.

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