Supporting Global Health Technologies Act, speakers warn: time is running out on tools for infectious diseases

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Rep. Albio Sires

Rep. Albio Sires

When Rep. Albio Sires toured rural South American villages a while back the lasting memory he carried with him was not what he saw but what he didn’t see: safe, appropriate tools to diagnose and treat diseases.

That, he told a packed room on Capitol Hill Tuesday, is why he joined with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) to cosponsor the 21st Century Global Health Technologies Act (H.R. 1515), which would authorize a long-term program coordinated by USAID to advance affordable, easy-to-use technologies such as safe injection devices, rapid diagnostics, and other innovative health solutions.

At the congressional briefing on Tuesday, Sires (D-NJ) spoke first, saying he has seen first hand the desperate need for new healthcare technologies. Progress, he added, won’t come without sustained investments by the U.S. government.

“This is something close to my heart,” he said.

USAID is well positioned to help develop those new tools, Dr. Zeda Rosenberg, chief executive officer of the International Partnership for Microbicides said. The agency not only helps in the development of new technologies, Rosenberg said, it has experience getting products out to the people who need them most, and strengthens health care systems everywhere it operates, by supporting clinics and labs, training staff, and generally building medical capacity in resource limited settings.

Long-term investments and dedicated resources from USAID are crucial in fighting infectious diseases, she said, because without working to develop the right products now, they won’t be available ten to fifteen years down the line when when they are needed.

More than 40 percent of the women who showed up to enroll in microbicide clinical trials in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa were already infected with HIV but didn’t even know it, she said, adding that women who bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic globally need prevention tools that are under their initation. USAID has made significant contributions to developing those tools, including the tenofovir topical gel and the dapivirine vaginal ring, she said.

Whenever we think we have an infectious disease under control, Rosenberg said, we’ve already lost because with infectious diseases, you have to be one step ahead.

Needed tools include new drugs to counteract growing drug resistance for infectious diseases, and a new vaccine for tuberculosis, event moderator Joanne Carter of RESULTS said.

In spite of  extraordinary progress in global health technologies development over the last decade, she added, much of the world still relies on outdated and ineffective methods to combat the world’s deadliest diseases, which leads to drug resistance.

MothernatureGlobal resources to fight tuberculosis provide a case in point, she said. Although TB claims the lives of 1.3 million every year, most of the world still diagnoses TB using a 100-year-old method which is time consuming and doesn’t reveal if the disease has become resistant to drugs.  Even the treatment options for tuberculosis can lead to further drug resistance, as the 6-9 month regimen poses challenges to patients struggling to make their livings and provide for their families.

H.R. 1515 would formalize USAID’s role in developing health technologies, Carter said.

Margaret McCluskey, senior technical advisor with USAID agreed. She recalled a walk through a graveyard in her Tenleytown neighborhood, when she saw dozens of small graves of children.  “That’s the world before vaccines,” she said.  “Don’t have business as usual when it comes to this bill and infectious diseases.”

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