Ted Talk of the Week

Vaccines and Development

I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

On September 7th, the news broke that an African child was paralyzed by vaccine-derived polio. On top of having dramatic consequences for the child, it also meant that the outburst of joy celebrating the first year anniversary of a polio-free Africa will not be reiterated next year. Aside from the fact that polio is still affecting Africa, the saddest part is that it is only in 2014 that the possibility of eradicating polio on the continent became a reality and that it was that same year that polio was declared a world health emergency. At last.

Although there is no cure for that disease, preventing it has been possible since the invention of a vaccine in 1952 by Dr. Jonas Salk. The West has been polio-free for decades, with only very few cases in the 1980s. “When the global polio eradication drive began in 1988, more than 350,000 children around the world were paralyzed by the virus each year. Last year, only 359 were”.  Many people were thus still affected by polio even though a preventive method was available. It took a world initiative to address the issue.

Seth Berkley discusses why that is; why vaccines, and medicine in general are not developed or done so at a later point after the resurgence of a medical crisis. Berkley takes the example of Ebola, which has been around since 1976. Until the outbreak last year, this dangerous infectious disease was barely studied and no cure was developed, even though it had not disappeared and continued to kill people. Berkley also mentions the dengue fever and measles which, despite their wide reach and mortality rate, still have not find cures.

We spend practically nothing to prevent something as tangible and evolutionarily certain as epidemic infectious diseases

The explanation is straightforward: there is no commercial benefit to expect from developing drugs to stop those diseases, for the simple reason that the affected populations cannot afford the research and development costs of such endeavour. Richer regions are not concerned by those viruses and hence do not have any interest in contributing . Ebola caught our attention because of the violence of its symptoms but also because Westerners had been infected and had brought the disease back to their home countries, thus created a risk of pandemic (although Ebola is not as contagious as other viral diseases such as the flu). Globalization had made it possible for a regional outbreak to become global. It also meant that there was a market for a cure for Ebola; affected Westerners were willing and able to pay the price in order to get better.

The fact that some widely spread diseases have not been cured is appalling; it is sad and difficult to understand. The lack of market outcome is not an excuse. Investing in vaccine research is investing in people, in their security and safety.

Every year we spend billion of dollar keeping a fleet of nuclear submarine to protect us from a threat that will probably never happen

Africa seems to always been behind in terms of diseases. ” The last case of smallpox was found in Somalia in 1977, and the last case of rinderpest, a centuries-old cattle disease that may have killed millions of humans by causing famine, was recorded in Kenya in 2001″. Why is that? Because populations do not have the financial means? Most probably, yes. Africa is, however, one of the continent with the most resources and the most human and development potential. This still needs to be explored. The first step is to use those resources to invest into the human capital, by addressing the health issues the populations are facing. In order to do so, the revenues of oil, gas, minerals, wood, diamonds and gold must be used for support local initiatives to come up with local solutions to local problems, and not to feed some dictators and their foreign partners.



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