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Seattle Needs to Stick to its Vision for Global Health, Recession or Not, Says Sen. Murray

Xconomy Seattle — 

Sen. Patty Murray is one of seven kids. While growing up, her dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was hard for him to support a family, so Murray’s mother went on food stamps for a time. But no matter how rough times got, the family had a goal that all seven kids would graduate from college. They did.

Murray used this little anecdote yesterday to make a point to an audience of business leaders at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s annual leadership conference at Suncadia Resort in Roslyn, WA. Instead of making excuses or whining about the recession, people here in Seattle should keep their eyes on the prize, which is to turn the region into an even bigger hotspot for global health research and development than it already is.

“We did it because we had a goal,” Murray said of her family’s success.

The chamber’s leadership retreat brought together big-name speakers from the global health arena to help brainstorm a bit about ways that businesses, nonprofit organizations, and researchers can collaborate to put a dent in some of the health disparities that keep holding back poor countries. Judging from the question-and-answer sessions, the drumbeat of dire economic news was weighing pretty heavily on this audience. That’s what led Murray to urge the business leaders to stay focused.

There were quite a few other thought-provoking sessions from the morning sessions. Here are some highlights:

William Foege, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and now a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, got a standing ovation after he urged businesses to bring their expertise, time, and cash to the global health cause. As an example, he told the story of ivermectin (Mectizan), the drug Merck donated to cure river blindness in the developing world in the 1980s, after making its money on selling it as a product for dogs.

This wasn’t all about altruism for Merck, Foege said. The drug company found that the river blindness program motivated its employees, and helped Merck retain some of its brightest people, because they were proud to work there. (Nobody dared to ask out loud if this is really possible anymore, but since Merck announced 7,200 global layoffs the day before, including 300 in Seattle, I’m sure plenty of people were wondering.)

Foege wasn’t just scolding businesses, but urging everyone to set aside their preconceptions to work for global health. Nonprofit organizations need to recognize that corporations aren’t all evil, and that they have critical talents and products that nonprofits need to tackle these global health problems, he said. “We underestimate the amount of altruism in corporations, just as we underestimate the amount of greed in church workers, public servants, and public health workers,” Foege said.

—Sometimes the enormity of these problems get lost in statistics, but yesterday one man’s story drove home how huge these problems are. Jackson Orem, a physician at the Uganda Cancer Institute, traveled to the conference as part of his collaboration with Corey Casper and colleagues at the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Until September, Orem was the only full-time oncologist in Uganda, a country with 30 million people. His clinic sees 10,000 patients a year, it lacks adequate chemotherapy that could cure tumors, lacks decent facilities for treating patients, and lacks enough qualified nurses, he said.

—Peter Small, a senior program officer with the Gates Foundation who oversees tuberculosis programs, argued progress is being made against the TB bug, which now kills an estimated 2 million people worldwide. It’s certainly about time. He pointed out that the diagnostic test for the bug is 125 years old and misses half the cases, the vaccine is 80 years old and of “dubious efficacy,” and that the antibiotics for it are 40 years old and need to be taken for six months. There are now three drugs in clinical trials (one of which was developed at Seattle-based Pathogenesis), and a half-dozen diagnostics are being tested in the field, he says. One of the leading vaccine candidates in the world was developed here in Seattle by Steve Reed at the Infectious Disease Research Institute. Small said he doesn’t really look at the area the main center of global health, but more as one of many hotspots. “We need a regional node of excellence on a global network,” he says.

—Dipika Matthias of Seattle-based PATH, a nonprofit that works to improve delivery of health technologies in the developing world, told the story of Ultra Rice (which we recently wrote about here), which has the potential to greatly improve the nutrition value of a staple food.

Judith Wasserheit, vice chair of the department of global health at the University of Washington, told the chamber about the intensity of interest in the subject among students and faculty around the world. The UW’s global health department, formed less than two years ago, already has attracted 200 graduate students and 100 faculty, she said. About 150 such programs have boomed at U.S. universities, and some of them are throwing big-time cash behind the idea. Duke University is spending $7.5 million to recruit faculty, and $6 million for a global health residency program. Imperial College of London just recruited UNAIDS leader Peter Piot to run its global health program. The shakeout, in terms of which departments end up the leaders in this field, will probably take 2-3 years, she says. “We’re all scrambling to recruit the best people,” she says.

In a later session, UW president Mark Emmert said global health is one of the biggest galvanizing forces on campus. “There’s no other subject, besides environmental sustainability, that generates this much interest. The interest is extraordinary,” Emmert says. “The students and faculty see a competitive advantage here.”

We’ll be watching over the next year to see whether the Seattle business community sees that same advantage, and is able to find ways to put its talent and (increasingly limited) resources into helping solve some of these huge problems.

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