Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Distributing Cures To The Developing World: Japan's Barrier Breaking Global Health Coalition


You won’t hear of a Walk for Chagas Disease. There is no Leprosy Awareness Month. Malaria is the distant scourge of adventurers and jungle explorers.

While almost relics of a bygone time to many in the first world, these diseases nonetheless continue to wreak havoc in impoverished communities throughout the world. Back in April, the Japanese government took a giant step toward addressing this issue by establishing the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT) in conjunction with various domestic pharmaceutical companies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Global health coalitions are nothing new. What sets the GHIT apart is its merging of the public and private sectors in an effort to bring the theoretical realm of drugs and technologies together with the more practical world of implementation and deployment. In doing so, it aims, in part, to provide a model for pharmaceutical companies seeking to expand their business abroad.

As Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of the speakers at today’s Japan Society event, GHIT Fund: Unlocking the Secret of Global Health Victories, explains, “Japanese pharmaceutical companies… now see R&D partnerships for global health as another way for them to become more engaged with the world.”

We covered global-minded Japanese entrepreneurs in a previous post. Just as companies like LIXIL and UNIQLO view overseas markets as being necessary not just for growth, but, indeed, for survival in the current economic climate, pharmaceutical companies must see the value in cooperating with organizations like the GHIT in order to remain viable.

Using funding from the government and other sources, including about $60 million dollars over the past five years from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the GHIT stands in a prime position to not only develop new technologies to combat disease, but also to successfully bring these technologies to the people who need them. It is this latter stage of the battle, implementation and deployment, rather than the development of drugs themselves that often poses the greatest challenge.

Take the fight against malaria as an example. Given the changing nature of the disease, efforts toward prevention and treatment have taken a multi-pronged approach, including the development of anti-malarial drugs, insecticidal sprays, and even a mosquito-zapping laser. However, it has been the simple mosquito net more than any other tool that has become the spokesperson for the global health campaign.

First-world nations can be guilty of touting simplistic solutions to complex problems in the developing world. Just a year ago, the long battle to bring Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony to justice became tantalizingly winnable by dint of merely watching and re-posting/blogging/tweeting a video. 3.7 million people suddenly became crusaders against Kony. In the case of malaria, the tagline became Send a Net. Save a Life, as seen on the page of Nothing But Nets, an offshoot of the United Nations Foundation aimed at “ending malaria deaths in this generation.”

While organizations such as Nothing But Nets could be said to be engaging the first world the only way they can, the results of these efforts have proven mixed. The nets themselves are susceptible to wear and tear, and, being treated with the same class of insecticide, they have a limited shelf life as mosquitoes develop resistance. And that’s only the nets that do get used. Many do not, or at least, not for their intended purpose; several news outlets have documented cases of nets being used to catch fish or as wedding veils.

As such, the eradication of diseases, especially those affecting the poor throughout the world, will require more than research funding. Ann M. Veneman, a GHIT Fund Board Member and one of the speakers at today’s event, will discuss what she sees as an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to partner with organizations that might have a better understanding of regional issues with deployment, be they logistics or education.

Global health cannot and should not work in a vacuum wherein drugs developed in one country never leave its shores, or where a promising new drug is developed without regard to its distribution and affordability. Kurokawa himself of the GHIT credits America for providing Japan with the means to combat tuberculosis, which he contracted as a child. With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the founders of the GHIT, introducing companies in the private sector to a model for product development, one that calls for action on the basis of simple business sense, those diseases that we see as myth could one day become just that.

--Andres Oliver

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