October 5, 2005

Big Thoughts, Indeed

Victoria Hale, the founder of the Insitute for OneWorld Health, knows what it means to bring hope to the third-world. Writing an editorial into the New York Times on August 19, 2005, Hale explains how social entrepreneurs, frustrated by the inaction of wealthy governments to bring aid to undeveloped nations, can bring Western medicine to alleviate disease themselves.

The crux of the problem with getting effective drugs to impoverished nations is affordability. Most pharmaceuticals resist selling cheap, generic versions of their drugs, arguing that doing so would limit their ability to develop new drugs. And the argument does not go without merit: If a company cannot make a good return on its drugs, it won’t attract serious investors and it won’t have the cash to invest in new research. Specifically, Hale argues, pharmaceuticals have mostly abandoned research on diseases that are restricted to warm, tropical regions – that is, the third-world.

Some nations have pursued more aggressive policies to solve this problem than others. Despite the objections of many Western governments, Brazil recently decided to begin producing a generic version of a much needed AIDS antiretroviral drug. Other countries are likely to follow.

But Hale espouses a more compromising approach. Hale’s group has championed bringing the drug, Paromomycin, to needy patients in the third-world. Paromomycin, a drug developed more than 50 years ago that effectively treats black fever (which kills some 200,000 people annually), has been sitting on the shelves of pharmaceuticals untested and unused for decades. It was originally abandoned because it wasn’t predicted to be profitable, but now Hale and other non-profits are bringing it back.

Having been dumped years ago, the patent on the drug has since expired. With funding from the Insitute for OneWorld Health and other socially-minded groups, Hale and other social entrepreneurs are now walking the drug through its final testing and development stages. Within a few years, the drug should be available at low prices in both Southern Asia and Africa.

So what is it that allows Hale and other social entrepreneurs to do their work? Talented volunteers, says Hale. “It’s difficult to take time away from a demanding job as a scientist or financial planner or doctor to do the volunteer work that makes these new approaches possible.” But, Hale asks, “What if it weren’t? Just as law firms set aside resources for pro bono work, there should be a systematic way for people from the world’s most successful companies to contribute their time and expertise to advance global health. Imagine a kind of Peace Corps for pharmaceutical professionals.”

These are big thoughts, indeed. But thanks to the innovative thinking of bright, socially-minded entrepreneurs like Hale, they are quickly becoming reality. Even if most Americans and Europeans don’t appreciate her efforts, at least Hale knows billions of people in the third-world do.

at October 5, 2005 8:19 PM