Viewpoint: As Obama Heads to Africa, An Entrepreneurial Approach to Fighting Disease Takes Root
Friday, July 24, 2015
The White House has said that President Obama’s trip to Africa, where he will attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, will focus on accelerating economic growth, strengthening democratic institutions and improving security in African countries. When the president arrives in Kenya he will find that new and innovative approaches to fighting disease on the continent have the potential to invigorate progress in each of those priority areas.
It is no secret that Africa bears a disproportionate share of the world’s disease burden. Our continent has 15 percent of the global population but more than half the world’s deaths from infectious and parasitic disease. More than 90 percent of the world’s half-million deaths from malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and the vast majority of those who die are children. HIV/AIDS continues to kill more than one million Africans annually and there are 1.5 million new infections each year.
Many parts of Africa have been showing enviable economic growth rates. But this enormous disease burden, coupled with relatively weak national health systems, presents a major obstacle to ensuring continued and sustainable economic progress. At the same time, investments in health improvements are known to lead to higher productivity and economic output while easing the enormous costs to societies of treating so many sick people. In short, better health leads to better economic conditions.
The innovation economy is making important inroads in the health R&D sector globally and within Africa, yielding new tools for prevention and diagnostics. Thanks to this, policy makers are beginning to view resources devoted to public health not as costs but as down payments on economic growth. International funders are increasingly linking health R&D with the goal of moving beyond foreign aid to a more sustainable model for achieving both health and development objectives.
The spirit of locally generated health R&D entrepreneurialism is rooted in the idea that Africans themselves must become more involved in finding solutions to the diseases that are devastating their communities. To some extent it is a question of scientific logic, as addressing complex and region-specific strains of a virus like HIV requires that at least some of the research take place on the local level.