Video: A shot in the arm for public health

By Dawn Fratangelo Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/28/2006 5:03:53 PM ET 2006-06-28T21:03:53

Dr. Peter Hotez was about to give up his decades work on finding a vaccine for hookworm — a painful intestinal disease that affects the poor — until the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"The great thing about the Gateses is they are funding the diseases no one else will fund," says Hotez, a professor with George Washington University.

By helping immunize and save millions of children, the Gates Foundation has been a shot in the arm for global public health.  

"Within our lifetime, I would expect all these top 20 diseases, we would have vaccines and medicines to eliminate the disease burden of those," said Bill Gates on Monday at the news conference where he accepted Warren Buffett's pledge to donate billions annually to the foundation.

That kind of talk is energizing a field that has long been plagued by systems that are underfunded or simply don't work.

"I'm hoping that this new infusion of Gates' resources and energy will revitalize a sense of a ‘can do’ attitude," says Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund.

Over 12 years, the foundation has given $6 billion in grants. Some of the successes:

  • Immunizing nearly 8.7 million children for common diseases such as tetanus and diphtheria.
  • Offering basic health care to 20 million mothers and newborns.
  • Clinical trials for malaria vaccines, one of which has already reduced rates in children in Africa.

The foundation eventually expects to give out $3 billion a year — equal to the annual budget of the American Red Cross. While it may have the influence of a government agency, public health experts warn that there's a difference.

"We just simply can't expect or accept any idea that this will take the responsibility away from government, where it belongs," says Redlener. "These are societal problems needing societal fixes."

Back at Hotez's lab, the hookworm vaccine has been approved for a clinical trial — all because the world's richest man is proving what public health can do with some private inspiration.

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