Global Health: The Most Effective Policy

As the 2016 primaries unfold, it’s time for candidates of both parties to focus on expanding the big-hearted policies that have made this nation so exceptional. In recent years, the most effective of those policies has been global health — that is, putting U.S. resources to work saving lives in developing nations by spreading health treatments that work here at home.

Read more at The Hill.

We Must Continue Our Legacy of Saving Lives

(Roll Call, March 7, 2013)

Now is no time to shy away from our health investments

By Bill Frist

A decade ago, as I was beginning my time as Senate majority leader, bipartisan consensus in Washington helped launch a new era of progress in global health just when it was sorely needed. Twenty years had passed since I first saw AIDS patients in Boston, though at the time we didn’t even have a name for this savage disease. Advances in treatment and technology were helping control HIV in the United States, but AIDS was decimating communities worldwide. There were tens of millions of infections, yet only 400,000 people in low- and middle-income countries had access to lifesaving antiretroviral therapy, meaning only a tiny fraction were able to escape death.

World leaders united to tackle AIDS and other scourges through an innovative financing tool — the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. President George W. Bush and Congress made a founding pledge of $300 million to the international initiative. Bush, with bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress, also established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest program ever to combat a single disease. President Barack Obama has similarly embraced this program and America’s role in eradicating this disease.

U.S. leadership at the Global Fund, and bilateral health programs such as PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative, signaled a renewed commitment to a core facet of our country’s greatness: compassion for those most in need. Understanding that improving global health is good for national security, economically prudent and — most importantly — the right thing to do, the U.S. taxpayers made an unprecedented investment in the world’s future.

That investment is paying off.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of PEPFAR this year, the number of people on lifesaving treatment has increased more than twentyfold. HIV infection rates are down. The number of malaria cases has plummeted by more than 50 percent. Tuberculosis mortality rates are falling steadily. The Global Fund alone saves an estimated 100,000 lives each and every month, working in more than 150 countries. These health gains were once unimaginable.

A new chapter in global health begins this month as visionary leader Dr. Mark Dybul takes the helm as executive director of the Global Fund. With so much gridlock in Washington, Dybul’s appointment is a reminder of what we can accomplish by reaching across party lines.

Dybul, who began as a physician treating AIDS patients in the early years of the pandemic, helped transform the fight against the disease as the architect and leader of PEPFAR. Now at the Global Fund, he will lead the charge to defeat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Armed with scientific expertise and dedicated to a mission that goes beyond political ideology, there may be no one better suited for the job.

Today there is real hope in this fight — but it’s far from over. We have the science to help people with HIV live healthy lives, but millions still lack access to the treatment they need. We can detect and treat TB, but drug-resistant strains represent a growing threat, and disease respects no borders. And malaria still takes countless lives each year, though it can be stopped with basic, incredibly cheap prevention.

Now is no time to shy away from our health investments. Scientific innovation continues to produce miracles at an accelerating pace. International donors are stepping up to the plate. Many traditional aid recipients are putting more resources into their own domestic health. The U.S. investment — less than 1 percent of our federal budget — saves and transforms hundreds of thousands of lives every year. It’s hard to imagine a better return on investment.

U.S. leadership has helped deliver a major blow to these three diseases, and backing down now would jeopardize that momentum. We’ve come too far to risk letting these diseases spread, mutate or reclaim the lives of people whom medicines have made healthy. We must finish this fight.

There are also real problems here at home, not the least of which is a challenging economic environment. And there is frequent division in Washington. But while sweeping agreement on Capitol Hill may be rare, the same bipartisan, compassionate commitment to global health remains strong. Obama called PEPFAR one of his predecessor’s “greatest legacies.” As Dybul and the Global Fund chart the path forward, we see new U.S. leaders from both parties taking up the mantle of global health, united in putting an end to these diseases.

Determined leadership today will help secure a stronger America and a brighter, healthier future for millions in the years to come. We have a long way to go, but together we can finally put AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria where they belong — in the history books.

Bill Frist, a physician, is a former Republican senator and majority leader from Tennessee.

This article was originally featured in Roll Call http://www.rollcall.com/news/frist_we_must_continue_our_legacy_of_saving_lives-222946-1.html

Is AIDS the last bipartisan issue?

(The Week, July 31)

These days, Washington can’t agree on anything. Thankfully, though, some brave lawmakers are still willing to cross the aisle to fight a deadly disease.

We live in fiercely contentious times. Every day, it seems, a new issue arises that Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on. Health care, taxes, energy, favorite flavor of ice cream — it seems our elected leaders must disagree at every turn. But one issue that has so far repulsed the partisan pressures of the times was highlighted in our nation’s capital last week: the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Washington, D.C., hosted the XIX International AIDS Conference. It was an energetic, passion-filled week. More than 23,000 attendees from across the globe heard and engaged speakers including both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cutting edge research scientists, activists, Nobel laureates, world leaders, and even a few celebrities. Perhaps even more important, many HIV positive men and women came together from dozens of countries to find a caring, supportive community.

The United States — and more specifically, the American taxpayer — has been the undisputed world leader in fighting this cagey virus for which there is no cure. This single virus has taken the lives of more than 580,000 Americans and 25 million globally since it emerged here in our country just over 30 years ago. The conference was a celebration of the remarkable success made because of this leadership, and a call for continued support.

When we stop the hollowing out of societies and inspire hope, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.

As moderator for a panel on the congressional role, I witnessed what I felt to be an accurate portrayal of how we got to the point where we could celebrate so many successes. Fundamental to the progress has been bipartisanship. Participating were two Democrats, Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), and two Republicans, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

Our panel’s balanced party identification was more than symbolism, as Rep. Lee acknowledged when she described the U.S. response as bipartisan, saying, “it never would have happened without … Republicans in the House and the Senate.” Indeed, the bold $15 billion PEPFAR commitment initiated by President George W. Bush and supported by Congress was quickly taken up and expanded under the Obama administration. All panel members were quick to praise the leadership and dedication of the other’s party.

And there is cause for such praise. PEPFAR, unprecedented in scope and size in its combatting of a single disease, has saved millions of lives, provided 4.5 million people with treatment, enabled hundreds of thousands of HIV positive mothers to give birth to healthy, disease-free children, and allowed tens of millions to receive testing, counseling and care. In 1995, 50,000 Americans died of AIDS. In 2009, that number was down to 20,000. Promisingly, partner countries are increasingly supporting this work internally. Last year, poorer countries invested $8.6 billion into the fight as international financing provided by wealthier nations amounted to $8.2 billion. As I have said for years, when we stop the hollowing out of societies and inspire hope, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.

The results of this bipartisan American commitment are in, and they are undeniable. Our past investment has inspired others to contribute, saved lives at home and around the world, and empowered economic development with a healthier workforce. But the risk today in a more highly charged partisan environment and in more fiscally challenging times is to say we have done our job and it’s time to move on. That would be a huge mistake, and all our progress would be erased because we still don’t have a cure. Around the world and at home, the AIDS epidemic is far from over.

Rep. Lee noted that there are still American communities where “the percentages [of AIDS] are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.” This is unacceptable, and you do not have to look far into the past to a time when both parties wholeheartedly understood this.

As Sen. Enzi recollected, in 2003 the PEPFAR bill “passed both the House and Senate unanimously, un-amended, in less than two months. That never happens.” But Enzi elaborated that five years later, when the time came for reauthorization under President Bush, the measure passed “again in a bipartisan way” — although “we didn’t have quite the same votes that we had the first time.”

However, hope for preserving this flame of bipartisan conviction was articulately reflected by the two other members of the panel, Sens. Rubio and Coons, each representing different parties, and neither of whom were in office during the original PEPFAR passage. They have emerged as powerful and knowledgeable voices on global health and HIV. Such leadership is vital when the focus of Congress, today filled with new members who were not around when PEPFAR originally passed, is understandably on domestic issues, the economy, jobs, and health care.

While living and working in Africa in the mid 1980s, Sen. Coons was inspired by the profound human tragedy he witnessed firsthand and has transformed these experiences into true leadership. But he warns that we “can’t take [continued U.S. leadership] for granted in what is an incredibly difficult, very partisan and very divided Congress at a time when our politics are in some ways the rockiest they’ve been in more than a generation.” But out of a world of mudslinging and disagreement, the Democratic senator says it “has been really refreshing to be able to work closely with Republicans” to fight this epidemic.

At a time when our national debt is skyrocketing, the typical American finds it difficult to understand how massive spending for people overseas, even if it is lifesaving, can be justified. But just how massive is this spending really? Not the 25 percent of our budget that most Americans think. In truth, our foreign aid spending is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. As Sen. Rubio, himself a favorite of the Tea Party, eloquently asserted, “If you zeroed out foreign aid it would do nothing for the debt, but it would be devastating not just for the world, but for America’s role in it.”

Progress has been mind-blowing. Science made possible by taxpayer investment through the NIH has brought miraculous new drugs to treat and, just this month, new medicines to prevent. Cost of treatment has fallen ten-fold and continues to plummet. Prevention strategies have turned the tide of devastation. But all this was accomplished because Americans came together, Republican and Democrat, working hand in hand in a bipartisan and meaningful way, rallying together to fashion solutions that are changing the course of history.

As Sen. Rubio declared, “the closer we get to the finish line is not the time to ease up, it’s the time to run through the tape.” Let’s continue to put our partisan differences aside and run this one together.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at BillFrist.com.

This article was originally featured in The Week http://theweek.com/article/index/231271/is-aids-the-last-bipartisan-issue

The world needs more health-care workers — millions more

(The Week, Posted on June 19, 2012)

By Bill Frist, M.D.

The most impressive part of any hospital or health clinic is the caring, skilled employees who prevent and treat illness. But the workforce we have is not enough.

 

As I visit health programs in far off corners of the world and right here at home, the most impressive part of any hospital or clinic is the health workers themselves — the hands behind the health care that is provided to mothers and newborns, to children and the elderly, to teens and adults to prevent and treat illness.

Health workers heal. It’s as simple as that. And in this country, and around the world, there are not enough of them. Doctors are included in that shortage, but it doesn’t stop there. Recent estimates suggest the world is short some 4 million to 5 million community health workers, midwives, pharmacists, lab technicians, nurses, and doctors. Fifty-seven countries have severe health workforce shortages — meaning there are less than 23 clinicians per 10,000 people.

And health workers, particularly in developing countries, are scarcest in the poorest communities and neighborhoods — both rural and urban — where poverty, poor sanitation, and disease conspire to take the lives of children and adults through preventable killers like pneumonia, diarrhea, pregnancy complications, and tuberculosis.

Fifty-seven countries have severe health workforce shortages.

Later this week I am heading back to Haiti with the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to review past investments in sustainable human health capital. Haiti is in dire need of indigenous health workers who are from and remain committed to their local communities. Long-term health and economic results can only be achieved by partnering with Haitians to build health training and service programs that they own and that they populate.

In targeted areas around the world, training armies of much-needed health workers has become a smart, key goal of U.S. foreign assistance. We are helping train new midwives, community health workers, lab technicians, and nurses through partnering programs supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These new health workers are serving in communities hardest hit by infectious diseases and the complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

And it works! Countries that have made a concerted effort to increase the numbers and skills of their health workforces have shown tremendous progress: Malawi has trained more than 10,000 health surveillance assistants in the past 20 years, and in the same period child mortality dropped almost 60 percent. In India, turning normal community members into lay health workers to support healthier newborn care practices reduced newborn deaths by over 50 percent.

Training community-level health workers does not have to be expensive — people who can provide the most basic levels of treatment for sick children and promote healthy practices can be trained for as little as $300. More-skilled community health workers and midwives cost roughly 10 times that amount to train. These workers provide the lifesaving interventions needed to address most of the leading causes of death of newborns and children — all with no need for huge medical school bills. It’s basic health care, but it is lifesaving.

Highlighting the humble service of health workers around the world is the subject of a campaign launched by Save the Children, with whom I have traveled to countries like Bangladesh and Mozambique to witness these health workers going about their daily tasks. The care is effective and affordable. In fact, I think we in the U.S. have a lot to learn from these community health workers delivering local care. Take a look at some of the powerful stories at www.goodgoes.org, where you glimpse the simple and affordable care provided by people who go the extra mile on behalf of others.

No matter what diseases and conditions are threatening, and what new technologies for treatment might come along, we can say for sure that progress will depend on an expanded army of health workers, properly trained and placed, with the right skills and supplies, intent on delivering the best quality health care possible.

As we look at America’s international assistance around the world, surely one of the best examples of success can be seen in the faces of these committed community servants.

 

This article was originally featured in The Week http://theweek.com/article/index/229433/the-world-needs-more-health-care-workers-mdash-millions-more

5 reasons deficit hawks should lay off global health initiatives

(The Week, April 24, 2012)

By Bill Frist, M.D.

America’s national debt is ballooning at a worryingly rapid pace. But some programs ought to be spared the chopping block.

Government spending is about to get chopped — no matter who wins the next presidential election. President Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney have both prioritized deficit reduction, which, of course, is a worthy goal. However, not all cuts are created equal. And many surveys put global health at the top of the list of things to slash. That’s a mistake, and here’s why.

1. Global health initiatives save lives abroad
Investments in global health pay off a lot more quickly and dramatically that you might think. PEPFAR, initiated by President George W. Bush and strongly embraced and expanded by Obama, was the largest direct investment any country has made in defeating a single virus (HIV) or disease. Our taxpayers’ leadership has provided 7.2 million people with access to lifesaving, anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, 8.6 million with treatment for tuberculosis, and more than 260 million — mostly kids — with anti-malarial resources. This U.S.-led historic initiative to prevent and fight disease has directly saved millions of lives, put kids back in school, and helped rescue entire societies from collapse over the past eight years.

Lifting others up no matter where they live is part of what makes us American.

Saving lives and societies leads to better and stronger relationships for trade, enterprise, and foreign investments. It enables economic growth, democracy, accountability, and transparency in these countries.

2.Global health initiatives protect U.S. families
Deadly microbes know no borders. They are just one plane ride away. HIV did not exist in the U.S. when I was a surgical trainee in 1981. But since then, it has killed more than 600,000 individuals here (and 25 million globally) and infects another 54,000 U.S. citizens each year. It arrived here from Haiti, migrating there from Africa.

Imagine the devastation avoided if we had identified HIV and our National Institutes of Health had figured out how to treat the virus a decade before it arrived on our shores. Our current global surveillance and engagement system might have done just that.

3.Global health initiatives enhance national security
A hopeful people are a people who shun terrorism. And nothing destroys hope more than a society without a future, hollowed out by diseases that decimate middle-aged civil servants, police, doctors, and teachers. A bleak and nonproductive future for an individual sets the stage for societal discontent and chaos.

Our investments in public health reverse these tragedies, and fuel the smart power of health diplomacy. Kaiser Family Foundation surveys have repeatedly revealed that more than half the public thinks U.S. spending on health in developing countries is helpful for U.S. diplomacy (59 percent) and for improving America’s image in the countries receiving aid (56 percent).

4.Global health initiatives are a bargain
Treating HIV costs a tenth of what it did a decade ago, and the costs continue to plummet. Globally, of the 8 million children under 5 years old who will die this year, half could be treated and cured with a low-cost intervention. Pneumonia, the number one killer of young children in the world, is easily treated for less than a dollar! And the No. 2 killer, diarrhea, can be prevented by increasing access to clean water. The price? For $20, we can provide clean water to a family for 20 years. For $14, we can fully vaccinate a child.

5.Global health initiatives are simply the right thing to do
I was born in Nashville by the luck of the draw. It could just as well have been South Africa, where life expectancy is only 49 years. We are all the same. Lifting others up no matter where they live is part of what makes us American. It’s what we do. Americans overwhelmingly say the U.S. should spend money on improving health for people in developing countries “because it’s the right thing to do.” Nearly half (46 percent) say this is the most important reason for the U.S. to invest in global health.

Yes, out of control entitlement spending and a deep recession have put everything on the chopping block. But let’s be smart about where we cut and where we don’t.

 

This article was originally featured in The Week http://theweek.com/article/index/227117/5-reasons-deficit-hawks-should-lay-off-global-health-initiatives