John Donnelly reports on the need for new breakthroughs in global health R&D
In her work in Western Kenya, where she is the chief research officer and deputy director of research and training at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, she sees the need for better drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools every day – especially with 30 percent of all pregnant women testing HIV positive.
“Can research make a difference?” she said Tuesday at a packed Hill briefing in the Russell Senate Office Building, sponsored by the Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC). “Can a woman know her HIV status in a place that doesn’t have electricity? Can she have a safe delivery? Is there any way we can make a difference in her life?”
Bukusi was one of four speakers who talked about the need for new breakthroughs in global health R&D, ranging from a new vaginal gel to prevent HIV transmission to new tuberculosis drugs.
The hearing spotlighted both recent advances in global health research – GHTC released its annual report that chronicled successes – as well as the recent budget battles in Congress that could cut short future research. The National Institutes for Health, for instance, recently decided to slightly reduce many 2011 research grants by 1 percent below current levels because of the budget cuts agreed to by Congress and the White House. NIH will receive $30.8 billion in 2011, a reduction of 0.8 percent from last year’s budget.
At the hearing, two senior Obama administration science and technology officials said many people in global health now look at the technology pipeline with great expectations of what could come.
“We stand on the cusp of science and technology breakthroughs” that can “usher in a new decade of global health gains,” said Alex Dehgan, science and technology advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “… We need tools to help us fight disease no matter where it is.”
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the State Department, said in her keynote address that the best approach for global health research was to involve all kinds of critical partners, including government, foundations, civil society and the corporate world.
“The issues of global health are not addressed in isolation. The solutions can only be found in global partnership,” Jones said. “Our approach to health diplomacy is to be engaged with the Ministry of Health … and others in government, but also to involve partners through the public and private sector that look for solutions and new approaches.”
As an example, Jones cited Tuesday’s unveiling at the State Department of an initiative called Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action – or MAMA – that will use cell phones to help at-risk pregnant mothers receive proper health care. One of the best things about the initiative, Jones said, were the diverse partners, which includes USAID, Johnson & Johnson, the UN Foundation, mHealth Alliance and BabyCenter.
Former U.S. Rep. Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican, told the audience that health research in general had many champions in Congress – on both sides of the aisle. “Of all the areas that I know of, I felt that health care research had less Republican-Democratic” infighting, he said.
Castle urged advocates to continue to make strong arguments to members of Congress and their staff about global health research, but he acknowledged that the federal budget crisis made it difficult.
Asked about future funding, he said, “I don’t have too much hope for anything in Congress right now. It’s a divided political atmosphere. I do feel if there is an area of a little more unification than most, it’s in support of public health and medical research. People understand that keeping people well is pretty good politics.”
Bukusi, the Kenyan researcher, said that she holds out hope of a different kind. She said that while research initiatives need much more support, she also wanted to see more support for African institutions to develop more trained staff so that research breakthroughs could be delivered to people.
One of the most important parts about her job, she said, was to be a mentor to younger researchers.
“I was a Fogarty scholar,” Bukusi said, referring to the NIH center that has supported hundreds of developing world scientists. “Part of the training … is that you have to give back to people in your country. Why am I so passionate about capacity building? Because this has a multiplying effect. As one person, there is a limited number of people I can reach. What I want to see is that the drops of water can become a mighty, mighty ocean.”
John Donnelly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.