Culture

Saving The World Is Within Our Grasp

Last year my wife, Melinda, and I visited an AIDS clinic in Durban, South Africa. We met women who had walked miles from nearby townships. When they arrived, they were greeted by a well-trained staff. There was an ample supply of antiretroviral drugs, which can help people with AIDS stay healthy for years. Patients were receiving counseling. As we chatted with one of the doctors in the clinic, it struck me: something was fundamentally different.

Nearly a decade ago, when Melinda and I started our foundation, we would go to sub-Saharan Africa or developing countries in other regions and see health workers struggling with broken equipment and empty medicine chests. We walked down dirty hallways packed with exhausted mothers holding sick children. In those days, many took it as inevitable that millions of poor people would die each year from diseases that are preventable, treatable or no longer present in the developed world. But that's starting to change. Today governments, aid groups and communities are simply refusing to accept the notion that diseases like malaria and tuberculosis will haunt us forever. The evidence is in: these problems can be solved.

The world can point to a number of victories already. Smallpox is gone, of course, and polio nearly so. Thanks to the leadership of the Carter Center, we've virtually eliminated guinea-worm disease, an excruciatingly painful parasite that is ingested with tainted water. There are new treatments available for visceral leishmaniasis, also called black fever, which is second only to malaria as the world's deadliest parasitic killer.

Millions of lives have been saved through better financing and delivery of the medical advances available today. The GAVI Alliance has immunized 100 million children, averting some 600,000 deaths last year alone, and a creative approach to the bond markets has raised $1 billion more to buy more vaccines. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is saving 3,000 lives a day. That clinic we visited in Durban was made possible by an American program: PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Those lifesaving drugs, the salaries for the staff—even the prefab building—were all financed with American tax dollars.

Some lifesaving solutions can be extremely simple—iodized salt to prevent stunted growth, for example, or oral rehydration solutions to fight diarrhea. Consider that one of the easiest ways to cut down on infant mortality is to keep babies warm and dry. Earlier this year, Save the Children recruited knitters through the Internet to knit and crochet 280,000 caps for infants.

Other solutions will arise from pioneering research now underway. Researchers are hard at work developing vaccines that don't need refrigeration or needles, which could make it easier and cheaper to deliver immunization in poor countries. Scientists are making important progress on new tools, like microbicide gels, to help women protect themselves against HIV. And clinical trials around the world are now testing what may be the greatest scientific breakthroughs of our time: vaccines for malaria, TB and AIDS.

The fight against malaria—which kills a million people a year, mostly children—illustrates how radical thinking can be applied to both discovery and delivery of new interventions. Scientists at Columbia University are trying to block a mosquito's sense of smell so it can't find humans to bite. Others at Virginia Polytechnic Institute are developing pesticides that activate only inside a mosquito, posing no danger to humans or other animals. At the same time, I'm amazed by the work of the Nothing But Nets campaign, which has managed through Web-based marketing to raise $13 million—mostly from young people—for insecticide-treated bed nets.

I believe we stand at a moment of unequaled opportunity. Governments must now step up to the plate with more money—wisely targeted—to expand effective global health programs to reach all those in need. Businesses, community groups and individuals all play a role as well. When Melinda and I visited that PEPFAR clinic in South Africa, we were thrilled to see the progress we've made against one deadly disease. I'm now more convinced than ever that we can create a healthier world for everyone.