A lot of people say the world is getting smaller. In public health, globalization is at the same time a challenge and a good thing – it’s easier for pathogens to travel between countries, but improved communication and common goals between countries make it easier to fight diseases. Yet it takes an unimaginable number of people focused on the same measurement to combat epidemics – and that metric is zero. Zero cases, zero deaths.
My first job out of graduate school in the mid-1980s was working on fiscal and economic issues on Capitol Hill. At that time, AIDS had already become a crisis. By the end of 1985, the number of cases worldwide had reached 20,000—up from 270 reported a mere four years prior. Too many of my friends were dead or dying.
So, emboldened by passion and a dad who was an epidemiologist, I joined a small group of government colleagues to push for more federal action to educate the public and direct research funds to AIDS.
We drafted legislation that eventually grew into key organizations to address global health challenges. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has saved an estimated 11 million lives by making anti-retrovirals widely available, and the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – the largest funder of programs dedicated to fight these diseases – has saved 22 million lives. Through that experience, I learned how effective public-private partnerships can be.
When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation first invested in the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), I was honored to be tapped to join this ambitious project. We had a lofty goal: Immunize all children in the 75 poorest countries against childhood diseases.
Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to improve health and spur economic development, and they’ve led to the near-eradication of several diseases. Still, access to these life-saving treatments remains a challenge for developing countries. So, GAVI set out to change that. I traveled to dozens of countries in two years to encourage the up-take of these vaccines.
We collaborated with major pharmaceutical companies, as well as UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and ministries of health to distribute the vaccines.
Since 2000, they together with civil society groups and faith-based organizations, have played a critical role in vaccinating more than 600 million children. GAVI has saved tens of millions of people who would have died from measles, diphtheria, tetanus and other diseases.
With this background, I joined ExxonMobil a decade ago, drawn toward a common purpose: eliminating malaria for good. We know this is difficult work, but in just shy of 20 years, ExxonMobil and its partners have trained more than 600,000 health care workers to detect and treat malaria, and distributed tens of millions of bed nets.
We still have a lot of work to do before eliminating the disease, but we’re making progress. Since 2000, worldwide caseloads of malaria have been cut in than half, and in the past decade, nine countries have been declared malaria-free.
Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a group of fearless people who had a simple goal: to make the world a better place by counting down to zero.