From Microsoft to mega-charity

Gates Foundation has transformed medicine, touched millions

July 02, 2006|By DOUGLAS BIRCH | DOUGLAS BIRCH,SUN REPORTER

The summer after his sophomore year in college, Paul Sonenthal joined a team of U.S. health researchers in India who asked truck drivers and sex workers how they protected themselves against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The drivers said the cabs of their trucks - where they hold liaisons - were too hot for HIV to survive. This wasn't true, of course, but it helped explain the high rate of infection among India's truckers, whose nomadic lifestyle has helped spread AIDS across the subcontinent.

That experience - in a program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - changed Sonenthal's life.

"I hadn't really thought about medicine until that summer," said the 23-year-old Williams College graduate from Arlington, Va., who plans to complete premedical studies at the Johns Hopkins University over the next year. "Since then, I've been absolutely driven."

Sonenthal is not the only aspiring scientist or doctor whose life was changed by the foundation that Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, established in 2000.

Thanks in part to the world's richest charity, once-neglected disciplines such as tropical medicine and international public health are attracting crowds of talented and enthusiastic students and researchers, academics say.

A pledge by Warren E. Buffett last week to donate $31 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in annual installments is expected to increase the flow of talent and passion into these fields.

Dr. Alfred Sommer, a professor and dean emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that a decade ago, most doctors and public health experts could not afford to work on lethal and crippling diseases of the tropics, such as guinea worm or malaria.

Now, thanks to the Gates Foundation, Sommer said, "There is an opportunity for bright, young, enthusiastic people to work on these problems and support a family."

A World Health Organization official recently asked Sommer if he thought Hopkins students would apply for a summer internship program with the agency. The line of applicants, Sommer assured him, would "surround the block."

The number of public health schools has rapidly expanded in recent decades: The newest is at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Enrollments at existing schools are climbing.

Driving this expansion, academics say, are the emergence of new infectious diseases, such as AIDS and ebola, as well as social and economic globalization. But experts say the Gates Foundation has also had a huge impact.

One example is malaria, which the Gateses mentioned repeatedly at the New York news conference announcing Buffett's gift.

The World Health Organization estimates that the mosquito-borne parasite, virtually eradicated in the industrialized world, strikes 300 million people each year and kills about a million of its victims. Ninety percent of those deaths are in Africa, and most are of children.

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University notes that malaria also cripples economies. Besides keeping millions home from school or work, it causes long-term learning disabilities and discourages trade and tourism.

Vaccines are among the most effective tools for promoting health. Yet, by the late 1990s, only a few scientists were working on one for malaria. The world's pharmaceutical giants weren't interested. Development costs were steep and the risk of failure high. Even if they succeeded, drug makers knew, a malaria vaccine could not turn a profit.

"How does a company put the millions or billions that are required to develop an effective malaria vaccine when the people in the countries you're marketing it to don't have any money?" asks Dr. Michael Klag, dean of Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

By the late 1990s, funding for malaria research was "minuscule in contrast to the enormity of the problem. People had essentially given up," said Elizabeth Corcoran, a California-based journalist who is writing a book about the Gates Foundation and global health.

Then, in June 1999, Bill and Melinda Gates donated $50 million to malaria research. That single gift doubled annual worldwide spending on the problem, Corcoran said.

A year later, the Microsoft billionaire created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and launched an effort to develop vaccines for three of the world's most important diseases: tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria.

Using his enormous wealth and influence, Gates has turned malaria into "a cause celebre," Corcoran noted, a cause since taken up by the rock singer Bono and other celebrities.

Andrew Jack, who covers the pharmaceutical industry for the Financial Times of London, has described the Gates Foundation's "omnipresence in global health affairs." But he says the direction of the foundation appears to be shifting into a new arena - economic development.

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