Why does innovation matter in global health?

In 2012, approximately 8.6 million people were diagnosed with tuberculosis. A disease that is almost eradicated in developed countries still ravages third world nations.

Trevor Mundel discussed the importance of innovation in the global health field  Emily Harbourne/Medill
Trevor Mundel discussed the importance of innovation in the global health field
Emily Harbourne/Medill

Two hundred and seven million new cases of malaria were also reported in 2012. A disease that can easily be prevented with drugs still takes a toll on thousands in kids in sub-Saharan Africa.

Developing innovative global health solutions, such as new drugs and vaccines, is crucial in combating numerous health issues plaguing third world countries.

In the developed world communicable diseases have almost disappeared. Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, are now more prevalent. However communicable disease are still a huge problem in underdeveloped areas.

Trevor Mundel, president of the Global Health Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, explains why fighting these diseases is harder than it seems.

The first issue is infrastructure.

“We are working in low infrastructure areas so we need simple solutions,” says Mundel, “but simple is never so simple from a scientific point of view. There are always complexities and challenges.”

Kids have poor immune systems and very poor gut function therefore vaccines rarely work for them. It is crucial to be able to boost these vaccines so a single shot will be affective and last for a lifetime. This requires innovation.

“We are getting up to at least eight vaccines we want to give kids with the expanded pediatric immunization program,” says Mundel. “We would like the combine them. The dream would be an up-to-date vaccine, but it is very complicated to make them because of the interactions between the various products.”

Some vaccinations need to be cooled or even frozen, but the infrastructure for cold chain storages is not present in many of the countries where the program works.

The second issue in fighting communicable diseases is affordability.

Not only do these innovative health solutions need to be effective, but also they need to be affordable. “An effective and appropriate health solution must be made available at an affordable price point,” says Mundel.

Every few years’ epidemics of meningitis spread across sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in mass death and disability. The meningitis vaccine being offered was not effective.

The Global Health Program partnered with the Serum Institute of India to produce a vaccine called MENAFRIVAC that costs 50 cents per dose. They have been distributing it across countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

“At the end of 2013 we had 150 million people vaccinated,” says Mundel. “Meningitis A in the vaccinated countries has totally vanished.”

Recently the global health program also licensed a new rotavirus vaccine that is going to be sold for $1 a shot.

The third issue in combating communicable diseases is the ability to measure progress.

“How do you change the world, if you do not know the state of the world?” asked Mundel. “You can think that you are doing good things, but if you didn’t measure the pre-existing circumstance then what you do is somewhat arbitrary.”

The Global Health Program has invested heavily in the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease, which was first released in 2010. It was the first standardized, comprehensive platform to quantify global health data by geography, age and sex.

The Global Burden of Disease has created greater accessibility to data, making s it easier to track progress. A new version based of 2012 data will be released soon.

Got an innovative health idea? Share it.

The Global Health Program welcomes ideas through their Grand Challenges Explorations program, which is a twice annual $100,000 grant program. Submit a two page proposal and your idea could be the next life saving innovation. Some previous winners include the next generation of the condom and the re-invention of the toilet.

The next call for proposals is focused on news ways to measure fetal and infant brain development. Submissions will be accepted March 4 through May 6.