Global Health advocates discuss urgent need for new vaccines

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Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the ONE Campaign, Michael Gerson (far right) speaks on a panel discussing the need for new vaccines.

When John Lusingu began working as a doctor in southern Tanzania in the mid-1990s, he immediately grew frustrated from the lack of resources, human capital, basic equipment, and other necessities required to run a healthcare system.  With many of his patients dying from AIDS, the young doctor quickly realized new solutions were needed to fight diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, which were ravaging communities. 

A decade later he began to research HIV/AIDS epidemiology, and now serves as a co-principal investigator for the RTS,S malaria vaccine trial in Tanzania.  Lusingu joined with other global health advocates to highlight the urgent need to develop vaccines for the deadliest global epidemics at a recent forum hosted by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the Global Health Technologies Coalition. 

Margaret McGlynn, former president of Merck Global Vaccines and Anti-Infectives and a current member of the Board of Directors of IAVI, stressed that the best way to eradicate disease is through effective vaccines.  As demonstrated through efforts to eradicate polio, smallpox, and other diseases, vaccines are a quintessential approach to preventing disease, she said, adding that smallpox eradication not only saved millions of lives, it saved billions of dollars, which for a developing country can make a world of difference. 

Calling the Thai vaccine trials a ray of hope, McGlynn said she is optimistic about an HIV/AIDS vaccine. The trials are currently being conducted among a different population.  She explained that the virus has an elusive nature and the multitude of strains makes it all the more difficult to deal with. 

Michael Gerson, senior fellow at the ONE Campaign and columnist for The Washington Post, explained that although treatment for diseases like HIV/AIDS is a necessary health intervention, we must also focus on preventative measures, like the prevention of mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) and vaccine development.  Focusing on treatment is not financially sustainable, he said, and we must come up with new preventative measures to ensure that the U.S. government has the financial ability to sustain its global health programs.  He also stressed that advocates need to educate the American public about the great successes in global health achieved through American funding, and build constituencies of champions who will urge lawmakers to devote more resources to research and development. 

John Lusingu explained that more research and development will lead to stronger capacity building in developing countries.  When human resource capacities are built through more research and development, physician scientists will have the ability to pursue even more necessary health interventions.  He explained that in 1999 people would never have imagined that it would be possible to develop a vaccine against a parasite, but a decade later we’re close to a vaccine for malaria, thanks to funding and political will. 

Vaccines are a best buy in global health, said David Cook, event moderator and executive vice-president and chief operating officer of IAVI.  In the case of HIV/AIDS, he said, we can prevent lifelong infections and lifelong therapies.  Cook made the case that technological successes through vaccine development will lead to successes in other fields, and we would see real economic benefits in the developing world through capacity building and growing human capital.  In addition, he said, investing in global health will strengthen U.S. foreign policy and ensure that the U.S. is able to make a positive and lasting impression on the rest of the world while allowing us to exert influence through non-military means.

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