Imagine a Disease-free World

By Roger I. Glass, MD, PhD

Terrifying news accounts of recent deaths from Ebola, flesh-eating bacteria, HIV/AIDS, Zika and even the plague can give the misleading impression that we are at greater risk than ever. But we are fortunate to live in a time when—thanks to scientific advances that have produced lifesaving vaccines and treatments—we can actually begin to imagine a disease-free world.

It’s appropriate for us on Public Health Thank You Day (PHTYD) to acknowledge the commitment of scientists around the globe who work tirelessly, often under difficult and dangerous circumstances, to solve the world’s most pressing health problems. As we have all been reminded, diseases know no borders so it’s important that we share our expertise and data, and form strong research collaborations—especially in locations with the fewest resources. After all, we are all only as strong as our weakest link.

At the Fogarty International Center, part of the National Institutes of Health, we support research and training programs to develop the next generation of global health leaders and increase scientific capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). We believe this work is critical to improving health around the world, in addition to bringing many dividends to Americans.

Fogarty trainees in many cases provide the bedrock that makes NIH research possible in low-resource settings. When HIV/AIDS emerged as a global crisis in the 1980s, Fogarty began programs to build scientific capacity in the LMICs where the suffering was greatest. Since then, research advances have informed care and treatment so that a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS has been transformed from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness. Fogarty trainees played a significant role in research discoveries including development of rapid diagnostics for detecting and monitoring HIV infections, new drugs for treatment and new strategies for prevention, such as avoiding mother-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention.

From a security standpoint, nations with scientific expertise are better prepared to contain infectious disease outbreaks when they occur. As we saw with Ebola in 2014, the countries that had well-trained researchers who were networked with global experts were able to swiftly manage the Ebola cases that crossed their borders, unlike the nations in West Africa, which had few technical or human resources to deploy. That’s why Fogarty has launched a program that is specifically directed at building partnerships and supporting training for scientists in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Training foreign researchers helps U.S. scientists take advantage of unique opportunities for discovery. When an unusual number of babies were born with microcephaly in rural Brazil, scientists trained by Fogarty to investigate Chagas disease redirected their research to examine the Zika virus, which was suspected of causing the spate of birth defects. Ongoing studies show adults can also be affected and that the virus can remain in the central nervous system for longer than originally expected.

We may learn the key to preventing the ravages of Alzheimer's disease—which is expected to strike one in three Americans and cost $1 trillion annually by 2050—by studying an extended family with hereditary, early-onset Alzheimer's in rural Colombia. Fogarty has provided critical scientific training so that local researchers can perform brain scans, genetic analysis and other sophisticated approaches. That has already enabled a clinical trial of a U.S.-manufactured drug that might help stop Alzheimer's at its earliest stage.

As we take stock during our 50th year of existence, we measure much of our success in the people whose training we have supported. As they have advanced in their careers, they have in turn mentored the next generation, multiplying the value of our investment and increasing its impact. By partnering with researchers around the globe, we can hasten progress. Together, we can someday achieve a disease-free world.

Roger I. Glass, M.D., Ph.D. is Director of the Fogarty International Center and Associate Director for Global Health at the National Institutes of Health.

This blog post is part of a series focusing on different aspects of public health in recognition of Public Health Thank You Day, held each year on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Visit www.publichealththankyouday.org(link is external) for more information, and join us on social media using the hashtag #PHTYD

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