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Steve Davis, the Techie Turned Global Healthie, Gets Dose of Reality at Close Range in India

Nobody can accuse Steve Davis of being a dilettante on global health. He’s best known for his strategic business thinking as the former CEO of Corbis, the digital image heavyweight, but even during his high-pressure 80-hour weeks, he spent time digging into global health issues on the nonprofit boards of Seattle-based PATH, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Yet these days Davis is getting a much different education, one where he can see the action up close, in places far removed from the comforts of the boardroom. Davis agreed, at the urging of PATH CEO Chris Elias, to take the job as the temporary leader for PATH’s programs in India. Davis started August 1 in this job, overseeing health aid programs through the end of this year, when a permanent director is supposed to be hired. Davis is also a senior advisor to McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm, and plans to continue doing that work after his stint in India.

India gets a lot of attention in the U.S. media as a rising economic power, but beyond the slick suburban office parks made to look like Silicon Valley there is a huge amount of work to be done in health and development. The world’s second-most populous nation, with 1.17 billion people, has an average life expectancy of just 66 years, ranking it No. 160 in the world, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book. Gross domestic product per capita is even worse, at about $3,100, ranking it No. 165 in the world. Diseases many people in the U.S. have never heard of—diarrheal diseases, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, and typhoid fever—are considered common there. India, even while its economic power emerges, still has trouble delivering regular electricity and providing efficient sewage systems and clean water. It is PATH’s single biggest country in terms of number of strategic programs to spur improved health R&D, education, and service delivery.

That’s all the easy conceptual stuff. Things look different from the ground, Davis says.

“This has really been beneficial to my thinking about health and development,” Davis said a few weeks ago, when I visited him at PATH’s Seattle office. “You think about big strategies and PowerPoints and we need more than that to understand what’s going on. It translates differently when you deal with bureaucrats, crazy political moves, people dynamics, and state-by-state issues.”

Davis got a taste of this while living through the controversy over the use of vaccines against cervical cancer. The vaccines, from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, have both been cleared as safe and effective by regulators in the U.S. and Europe, and have been widely used.

Use of the vaccines has been controversial in many parts of the world, partly because it assumes that young girls need to get vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease. But in India, there have been reports that four young women who were in cervical cancer vaccine trials ended up dying. That has given opponents a story to run with, which has gotten a lot of air time in India, Davis says. It has attracted activists who push a generally anti-corporate, anti-Big Pharma platform, arguing that they shouldn’t run clinical trials on poor Indian girls. Hearing Davis describe this scene made me think some folks are getting their ideas about Big Pharma from the sinister John le Carre novel and movie “The Constant Gardener.”

While opponents would have a point if the vaccine were dangerous and the greedy … Next Page »

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  • http://habitatmart.com Rowena Wright

    Actually the hazards of the cervical cancer vaccine have made mainstream media including an expose on CNN. In the US, only 1 in 3 girls are opting for the vaccine. So the deaths on India are probably not coincidence, or alarmist, but another case of unclear benefits, potential irreversible damage, but clear and enormous profit with a population like India’s. Run the numbers, bro’

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