Global Health Ideas

Finding global health solutions through innovation and technology

Archive for January 2007

The Power of an Idea: Using ICT to Help Iraqi Healthcare – Donations Needed!

There have been two recent interesting stories about helping Iraqi medical professionals. Before I begin, please see the request for donated medical textbooks at the end of this post. The first story is about an ICT non-profit in San Francisco that is helping equip (with computers) and wire up 19 teaching hospitals in Iraq. The organization, Wired International, was founded in 1997 with a mission to provide “medical and healthcare information, education and communications resources to communities in developing and post-conflict regions”. They seem to have achieved both scale and scope, since that time they have 76 information centers in 11 countries that serve 1 million year. Now they are getting involved in Iraq:

News Release, Jan 27, 2007 –
“Thanks to communication Professor Gary Selnow and his dedicated band of volunteers, Iraq’s medical schools are no longer without critical telecommunications and access to global databases. After equipping medical information centers at 19 Iraqi teaching hospitals, Selnow and WiRED, the nonprofit he founded to do this work, finalized arrangements to equip an additional 20 centers throughout the war-torn country. For the first time since Saddam Hussein cut off communications between Iraqi doctors and the rest of the world, faculty and students have the technology to consult with colleagues in other countries and tap such critical information sources as those at the World Health Organization.” (State Department press release can be found here)

The second story has to do with an almost accidental wide scale mission to supply Iraqi clinicians with up to date medical textbooks and journals. The doctor who started this never expected so much support. It is a neat story that is worth reading. DONATIONS are still needed, please pass the word (info on donations is at the end):

The Power of an Idea: Help for Iraqi Medical Professionals, Excerpts from Medscape:
Nearly 3 years ago I learned from my son, then in Iraq with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, that the medical college in Tikrit had virtually no teaching or research library. I also learned that, for historical reasons, Iraqi medicine has been taught in English since Iraq was a British protectorate following World War I. My initial reaction was to seek a few donated copies of textbooks from distributors and publishers for them…

After publishing this first Medscape article, donations from Medscape readers began to be sent…Thus began a totally volunteer project that has no formal name, no budget, and no staff, but that has met with astounding success… The influence of the Internet is such that the AMA’s American Medical News, the Associated Press, the newsletter of the American Medical Library Association, and others have subsequently publicized the program, bringing in new interest and offers to donate.

The true heroes of this story are the American military personnel who have volunteered to receive and distribute donated publications…What has also become apparent is that there is at least equivalent heroism among the Iraqi medical professionals who struggle with limited resources to provide the best possible care to their patients. Donations now far exceed 200,000 textbooks and nearly a half million professional journals.

***Donations Still Needed: Please Help***
The need for medical publications remains largely unmet. Our contacts in the region describe the situation clearly: “This area has very competent physicians and healthcare providers who simply lack the necessary supplies and resources to perform at their true potential. They do a fantastic job with extremely limited resources and anything that can be done to help them is a true blessing. Clinics and hospital are very short on modern books and recent journals.”

Iraqi medical training and practice is modern although severely strapped for resources. Their needs are for contemporary publications, both texts and journals. The Iraqi Ministry of Health has requested that donated text editions have publication dates no earlier than 2000 or, for journals, nothing published prior to 2002. Primary care materials are very useful in community clinics. Specialty materials are extremely scarce in the hospitals and teaching institutions and will also be well received. Pharmacy, physical therapy/rehabilitation materials, dental, and veterinary publications are useful with no language barrier to understanding.

Please contact David B. Gifford, MD at dgifford at for up-to-date information about how and where to send donated medical publications and medically related materials.

Other sources: Michael Yon


Written by Aman

January 31, 2007 at 6:18 am

Negotiating two noble goals – ‘access to essential medicines’ vs. ‘pharma innovation’

Novartis has asked for clarification on a set of patents related to Gleevac, a leukemia drug. Today’s New York Times describes the battle between Novartis and Indian generic drug manufacturers in an article entitled, Battle Pits Patent Rights Against Low-Cost Generic Drugs.

Most of you are probably very familiar with the ongoing debate pitting further pharmaceutical innovation against access to essential medicines. This article does not resolve this issue, but it does provide further evidence that international agreements on IP rights have emboldened ‘big pharma’. At issue here is breakthrough vs. incremental innovations of pharmaceuticals. According to the article,

It would also effectively tighten patent legislation passed by India in 2005 to limit the manufacture of generic drugs. The law was intended to bring India in line with the World Trade Organization’s agreement on intellectual property rights.

The 2005 law allows patents to be granted on new versions of older, off-patent medicines if the new version can be shown to represent a significant improvement on the original, but not in the case of “incremental innovations.”

According to Novartis the new version allows for better absorbtion into the body over previous and off patent versions of the leukemia drug. John Gilardi states “If there is no patent protection, we will not see billions of dollars being invested in the research of medicines,”. But, monetary investment aside, at what point does expanding the protections on intellectual property decrease incentives to innovate. Without in depth familiarity of the case, it seems the Indian court ruled that the new version did not represent a significant incremental innovation. The issue of patent violation was never seriously on the table.

Novartis already gave free supplies of Gleevac to 6,800 patients in India suffering from the rare form of leukemia that it was developed to combat. He [John Gilardi] said that number represented more than 90 percent of all the cases in the country.

Donations as a model does not represent a sustainable solution to the “access to essential medicine” problem. Yet, it has been and continues be trumped as a possible model for mitigating the problem. See Making Sight Affordable (Part I): Aurolab Pioneers Production of Low-Cost Technology for Cataract Surgery for a discussion of this issue for intraocular lenses.

Written by Mahad Ibrahim

January 30, 2007 at 12:51 am

Thailand approves production of patented HIV, cardiovascular drugs

The titles of these two articles – Thailand to break AIDS, heart drugs patents from ETNA (Thailand) and Thailand backs patent drug copies from the BBC – suggest different actions on behalf of the Thai government, but they both report on the same: Thailand has approved production of patented HIV and cardiovascular pharmaceuticals.  The drugs in question are Kaletra, an antiretroviral protease inhibitor produced by Abbott Laboratories, and Plavix, an anti-clotting agent from Sanofi-Aventis and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

From the ETNA article:

BANGKOK, Jan 30 (TNA) – The Thai Public Health Ministry confirmed Monday that it has issued compulsory licenses for the production of two drugs, one for the treatment of HIV/AIDS and another for a cardiovascular drug, paving the way for immediate production and imports of lower-cost generic versions.


[Thai Public Health Minister Dr Mongkol na Songkhla] said the decision to break the patents was not taken lightly but the move was necessary to ensure that the affected Thai patients have access to cheaper generic versions of the life-saving drugs.

He added that generic production of Plavix, for instance, would reduce the cost from about 70 baht (US$2.06) a pill to less than six baht (18 cents).

This is the second time Thailand’s military-backed government has broken an international drug patent in the interest of the health needs of the country’s poor.

In November it introduced Thailand’s first compulsory licencing for Merck’s Efavirenz anti-retroviral AIDS treatment.

Davos 2007 Technology Pioneer: Aresa – Landmine Biosensor

There were 47 “Technology Pioneers” (Full Report, PDF) named for the Davos World Economic Forum meeting last week. Selections was based on innovative organizations that were developing life-changing technologies. There are several known names on the list and one that we heard about last year is Aresa, a start-up company that is trying to commercial a biosenor technology for landmine detection. There are an estimated 100 million unexploded landmines globally. The remarkable thing about this is they are using a genetically modified version of a naturally occurring weed. More details below:


Saving Lives And Limbs With a Weed, Time December 2006
“Aresa, a Copenhagen-based biotech start-up, has genetically modified a common weed called thale-cress so that its leaves turn red when the plant comes in contact with nitrogen dioxide–a compound that naturally leaches into the soil from unexploded land mines made from plastic and held together by leaky rubber seals.”

Previous BBC story (which points out potential limitations of this technology).

Written by Aman

January 29, 2007 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Innovation

LA Times: A vaccine development ‘renaissance’

This Sunday’s LA Times has a story about a so-called A vaccine development ‘renaissance’. This resurgence in vaccine development is being led by improved scientific knowledge, increased government research funding and interest among global drug companies, innovative financing schemes and purchase guarantees and finally better delivery mechanisms. Vaccines have done much to improve global health in the modern era, but it is clear the dynamics of vaccines have changed significantly. As described by Rachel Glennerster, Michael Kremer, Heidi Williams in their article Creating a Market for Vaccines (MIT Press journal -Innovations Case Discussion, PDF):

Vaccines are perhaps the paradigmatic example of a cheap, easy-to-use technology that can have tremendous health impacts even in very poor countries with weak health care infrastructures. Vaccines (relative to drug treatments) require little training or expensive equipment to implement, do not require diagnosis for use, can be taken in a few doses instead of in a longerterm regimen, and rarely have major side effects. They can be prescribed and delivered by health care workers with very limited training, and resistance rarely develops against vaccines.

However, it is clear to many that the market for vaccines has a large role to play in the dearth of progress developing vaccines for the prickly and prevasive diseases, such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. Glennerster, Kremer and Williams further state,

Poor countries have benefited enormously from such vaccines, but these benefits have for the most part been a fortunate byproduct. Little public- or private-sector R&D is targeted toward developing new health technologies for diseases concentrated in poor countries.

Of the 1,233 drugs licensed worldwide between 1975 and 1997, only 13 were for tropical diseases; of these 13, five came from veterinary research, two were modifications of existing medicines, and two were produced for the U.S. military—only four were developed by commercial pharmaceutical firms specifically for tropical diseases of humans.

According the to LA Times article:

Prevnar, a vaccine introduced in 2000 to treat pneumococcal pneumonia — the cause of up to a quarter of all community-acquired pneumonia cases each year — runs about $250 for a four-shot series. It became the first vaccine to clock $1 billion in annual sales, giving it so-called blockbuster status.

This potential for blockbuster sales has facilitated the return of drug giants to the market, but does this change the story for diseases centered in the Global South. The answer is unequivocally NO! but not to be disheatened, this rennaissance has ushered in mechanisms to create markets for vaccines targeting diseases found mostly in the Global South. Perhaps most famous of these initiatives is the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Read the recent case study on the IAVI by Seth Berkley – Ending an Epidemic: The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative Pioneers a Public-Private Partnership.

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI alliance) has also played a seminal role in distributing and administering vaccinations in those regions of the world with barely functioning health care systems.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, GAVI announced it would commit an additional $500 million over three years to strengthen healthcare systems in poor countries, a key problem in implementing vaccine programs in many locales. The organization says it has prevented 2.3 million deaths from disease since its inception, including 600,000 last year.

Finally, another major piece of the puzzle is reducing uncertainty regarding effective demand for vaccines. The most often discussed mechanism for ensuring effective demand of vaccines has been advance purchase commitments. see the article cited above for detail on this mechanism. Another issue addressed in the following recent post – Vaccine Demand Forecasting: Creating Markets and Incentives – is the issue of demand forecasting. Though the benefits of vaccines are clear, we must refrain from reductionist thought about the nature of human behavior. Much work needs to be done educating and advocating for the immunization of children and adults. Under the current circumstances it can be quite challenging to forecast demand for vaccines. As the recent issue in Northern Nigeria illustrated, sometimes cultural, religious and other factors often trump sound health practices. The history of development in the Global South has created much acrimony and distrust. As professionals, academics, and practitioners of technology, health and development must always realize the complexity of technological interventions – the case of vaccines is especially illustrative of this fact.

Written by Mahad Ibrahim

January 28, 2007 at 2:11 pm

Top Bollywood Stars too Cool for HIV/AIDS

It appears that some movie celebrities in India are woefully behind the times. Another attempt is being made in Bollywood to bring HIV/AIDS education to the public, however getting the top actors involved has been difficult. This is unfortunate given the tremendous impact of Bollywood, the influence of which cannot be emphasized enough with an estimated 15 million viewers daily. There have been two full length films on HIV/AIDS in Bollywood, but those were unsuccessful commercial ventures. Considering the stigma surrounding the full length features it will be interesting to see what happens with this new effort:

Bollywood Plots AIDS Message Despite Stars’ Apathy. Scientific American Jan 2007.
Four top Bollywood directors are to make short films dealing with HIV/AIDS that will be shown before blockbuster releases, hoping to use their stars’ pulling power to spread awareness of the deadly virus in India…The low-budget, 12-minute movies will be shown at theatres ahead of full-length commercial Bollywood films that star well-known actors, said Mira Nair, the India-born director of “Mississippi Masala” and the sensuous hit “Kama Sutra”.

“The idea is to piggyback on blockbusters to spread AIDS awareness” Nair Said. Nair, who is making one of the 12-minute films which will be titled “Migration”, said she had been unable to get A-list Bollywood actors to feature in the films on AIDS…”Lots of stars don’t want to be associated with the virus”.

Other sources: Reuters

Written by Aman

January 28, 2007 at 9:42 am

Posted in Global Health

Watch what you’re grabbing…

A fun and clever public health message with a strategically placed door nob to prompt hand washing among men. The stickers that decry poor practice link to viral videos at

Life sized stickers of Indian child beggars were used to bring awareness of their needs to wealthy shoppers. It’s not quite clear if this was only a concept or an actual campaign.

An enjoyable blog that highlights other smart and compelling non-profit advertising and social campaigns is Houtlust

Written by Justin

January 24, 2007 at 7:55 pm