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Let's Work to Improve Global Health
Mar 28, 2006, 9:00a

Here are some things I think we must fund to improve global health care:

1) Poor country disease eradication

Many diseases, such as malaria (which kills 1M/year), don't get the attention or funding that they deserve. Some drugs that would only benefit poorer countries aren't developed because there isn't enough money to be made to be worth the effort. Beyond medication, there are simple things, such as $4 bed nets, which can go a long way to stopping the spread of malaria, but somehow they haven't been adopted, perhaps because they haven't been distributed in the right way. Corrupt governments also don't help - developed countries have given $600B to Africa in the past 40 years, but the money hasn't had the impact it should have had.

It seems that organizations of all kinds could learn a lot from the Carter Center. Founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, the Carter Center has done an amazing job focusing on eradicating a single health problem that is unheard of in developed countries: guinea worm. They've been able to nearly eradicate the disease, from a peak of 3.5M cases in 1986 to 11,500 cases in 2005. The Center is successful largely because it's got an intelligent, prominent leader, it's hands-on (doesn't just send money), and it's focused its limited resources on a handful of small problems that have large impact.

2) Stem cell research

Stem cells have the potential to successfully treat many debilitating diseases today, including Alzheimer's, diabetes, hearing loss, blindness, and heart disease. This is because stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the human body, so they can be used to replace any malfunctioning cell.

Stem cell research also has ethical considerations; Bush has decided not to fund research on stem cells derived from new embryos (according to the article, 60 embryo-derived stem cell lines already exist), while the state of California plans to spend $3B on embryonic stem cell research. It's hard to say whether research on frozen embryos is right or wrong, though I tend to think that since the embryos won't develop into human life without significant human intervention, they shouldn't be classified as human life and therefore it's OK to use them to help other people.

3) Prioritize Health over Death

Unfortunately, countries often spend more money developing tools that kill people than developing tools that save people. The United States is a prime example: of the $2.7T planned to be spent in 2007, $523B will be spent on Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and "Global War on Terror" programs. In comparison, Health and Human Services and National Science Foundation will get only $74B in funding. (see 2007 budget tables) If we want to get serious about dramatically improving the health of the world, we have to start investing in it more than in tools that kill.

Specifically, investments in cancer research have been cut substantially in 2007. Nearly everyone has a family member or friend who has cancer - my aunt was recently diagnosed with colon cancer after fighting off breast cancer several years ago. Just count the number of yellow Livestrong bracelets you see around you; they've sold more than 30M to date. Yet, the Bush administration plans to cut funding by $40M. Let your congressperson know that this is unacceptable.

Overall, given how wealthy the world is, I think we've done a mediocre job of improving the health of people worldwide. We can, and should, do better.

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