When Global Health Benefits From a Breath of Fresh Air

Jul 13, 2017 9:30 AM ET

When global health benefits from a breath of fresh air

Breaking the mould of the work routine is invaluable. I was reminded of this recently as I walked around the white tents of the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, against the backdrop of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, you’re more likely to see shorts and t-shirts than suits and ties. There's also a good chance you’ll finally talk with that expert you’ve been trying to connect with for months - while waiting in line for a famous Let’s be Frankgrass-fed beef hot dog.

The festival is a diverse gathering of some of the world’s brightest and most passionate talent debating how we can get ahead of today’s big issues across sectors. I attended Spotlight Health which is a three-day introduction to the main Ideas Festival. I took part in many discussions around global health, from innovative vaccines funding models, being prepared for the next disease outbreak to delivering end-to-end care. Despite the breadth of topics covered, common threads came through clearly.

Sustainability is crucial

A sustainable approach to healthcare is essential in being able to provide break through innovation and improved outcomes for patients. There’s no better example than Ebola. The outbreak in 2014 sparked immense interest, all sectors reacted quickly and a few months of hard work later we had a vaccine almost ready. Then when we were finishing our trials, the WHO declared countries Ebola free and interest dropped off. It’s lucky that through other health interventions we were able to tackle Ebola, but this approach is not sustainable for business and not good for patients either.

With a different approach, we can invest in R&D and into cutting edge science like synthetic vaccine technology “SAM”-in short turning viral gene sequences available on the internet into seed stock. This could shave months off vaccine development and we’re not just talking about Ebola. This kind of platform could help us adapt a plug and play approach with many other viruses. In short, it could revolutionize how we respond to vaccine preventable disease.

We must go the last mile

What use are vaccines and medicines if they don’t get to the people who need them? Many of my conversations at Aspen focused on the need for end-to-end care. It was remarkable to hear so many voices from different parts of the care chain from governments through to researchers in countries like Ghana and Malawi all calling for a more holistic view on care delivery.  

To support the healthcare chain to the end, we must make sure local health care workers and health systems are equipped to diagnose the problem and to deliver the care, whether that’s a Malaria vaccine or an HIV treatment. If we look at disease outbreaks it’s also about making sure that communities are equipped with surveillance and communication tools for early detection and action.

An important practical aspect in the delivery of end-to-end care is acknowledging the roles we play as government, academia, NGO and industry. We must identify our responsibilities, own them and ensure we work seamlessly together to deliver for patients.  

Toward the end of the week, it struck me that the components of what made Aspen a success-its diverse yet collaborative spirit and action orientated discussions were comparable to key factors of successful R&D programmes. With an open approach and a commitment to share knowledge, we are in a good position to make positive progress on the biggest global health challenges of our time. And in these times of political and social change that can only be good news, for all of us.