Tom Paulson


Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

Author Archives: Tom Paulson

AIDS 2014 – Plenty of slogans & new science but not enough money | 

downloadAt the world’s biggest AIDS meeting this week in Australia, one long-time activist and attendee sees lots of slogans and important new research findings but not nearly enough money to make use of either the potential new tools or the rallying lingo.

A new drug, Truvada, has been shown effective at preventing HIV infection and recently was endorsed by the World Health Organization for use by those most at risk of infection. Despite some disappointing news about efforts to come up with a cure for AIDS, scientists point to other research fronts, though less sexy than a cure, where progress is being made on the search for a vaccine, on treatments for preventing disease and spread of HIV.

“This is one of the most exciting times in terms of HIV science, but one of the worst of times economically,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC (AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, which despite the name works across all aspects of disease prevention), who spoke with Humanosphere by telephone from Melbourne where the International AIDS Society is holding its biannual meeting AIDS 2014.

At the last big AIDS confab, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to help create an AIDS-free generation. Others spoke optimistically about the ‘end of AIDS’ as if the world is now at a tipping point, as if we are poised to end the pandemic.

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At 5 billion, PATH’s life-saving labels make vaccines more effective | 

Health worker and vaccine vials with the heat-sensitive VVM.
Health worker and vaccine vials with the heat-sensitive VVM.

Sometimes, a simple technical fix – or techno-fix, as the critics like to say – is exactly what’s needed. It’s getting people, organizations and industry to accept the change that can be the biggest complication.

Seattle-based PATH recently celebrated a techno-fix milestone – reaching the 5 billion mark for the number of vaccine vials distributed worldwide bearing a life-saving, heat-sensitive label.

First developed by the food industry to make sure edibles remained properly refrigerated during transport, when used for immunizations this label is known as the vaccine vial monitor, aka VVM.

Most vaccines need to be kept at a precise temperature under refrigeration; VVMs tell health workers operating in harsh conditions and traveling to remote locations if the vaccines remain protected and viable by the time they are administered.

All polio vaccines today have VVMs, as do all vaccines used by UNICEF or pre-qualified by the World Health Organization, but even after 25 years they are still not uniformly in use in the private sector, in the developed world or by PAHO (Pan American Health Organization).

A chart showing the different visual readings given by VVMs to track heat exposure and damage to vaccines.
A chart showing the different visual readings given by VVMs to track heat exposure and damage to vaccines.

“We faced great reluctance by the vaccine manufacturers at first,” recalled Debra Kristensen, group leader for vaccine and pharmaceutical technologies at PATH.

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A chat with Oxfam America chief rabble rouser Ray Offenheiser | 

Ray Offenheiser
Ray Offenheiser

Today’s Humanosphere podcast guest is Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, a Boston-based anti-poverty organization and American offshoot of Oxfam International headquartered in Britain. Most people have likely heard of Oxfam but may not know much about it – or what often distinguishes it from the many other humanitarian organizations out there working to reduce poverty, injustice and other forms of global inequity.

Put simply, Oxfam is not the least bit shy about naming names, chasing down bad acting governments and corporations or taking on the rich and powerful if it can advance the cause of helping the poor and reducing suffering.

Take, for example, the atomic message bomb Oxfam dropped on the gathering of the super-rich and elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year.

Oxfam3It was just a factoid contained in an Oxfam report – the finding that today some 85 billionaires own as much of the world’s wealth as 3.5 billion of the poorest people – but it arguably stole the show at Davos. The world’s media went nuts, forcing the attendees to address this grotesque statistic. (Even the super-rich cheerleader “world’s richest” list-loving Forbes magazine later jumped on board and corrected the figure, noting that the global concentration of wealth was actually worse than Oxfam reported).

This simple act of advocacy by Oxfam, this metric of global inequality, is now a meme that won’t go away.

In the podcast, Ray and I talk about some other examples of Oxfam’s ‘edgy’ approach to advocacy – including a campaign called Behind the Brands that holds food manufacturers accountable for their claims to be engaging in socially responsible practices; or the time Oxfam stood up for poor Ugandan farmers against corporate and government interests aimed at displacing them.

“It’s important at times to speak truth to power,” says Offenheiser. “Some might call that edgy … We think that’s part of what gives the organization integrity and our struggle is to do that well.”

Offenheiser was in Seattle for a meeting with ‘advocacy partners’ of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The meeting, which was closed to the media and the public, included representatives from Save the Children, the One Campaign and other anti-poverty and humanitarian organizations. All are focused on helping to advance and improve the fight against poverty and inequity. According to Offenheiser, Oxfam intends to remain focused on raising public awareness of how inequality – in wealth and power – is at the root of most of these problems and must be central to the development agenda.

So listen in and learn a lot more about Oxfam, how it got started in World War II, how it retains its ‘edge’ and how you can help them make the world a better place.

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New Gates Foundation chief to seek revolutionary simplicity | 

The world’s biggest philanthropy is entering a new era, a third phase of sorts, but is hardly settling into a comfortable routine of funding the same old things  or losing its upstart mindset.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann
Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Susan Desmond-Hellmann is the new chief executive officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the first non-Microsoft outsider to take the helm of an organization that, for better or worse, sets much of the international agenda for global health, aid and development. Desmond-Hellmann takes over as Gates Foundation CEO from Jeff Raikes, who took on the job after Patty Stonesifer.

Both Raikes and Stonesifer were former Microsoft executives with little prior experience in philanthropy or international development. Desmond-Hellman, a physician, academic and former biotech exec, did medical research years ago in Africa with her physician husband Nick Hellmann, who formerly worked on HIV/AIDS for the Gates Foundation and now works at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much global health has changed in the last 15 years since the foundation started,” said Desmond-Hellmann. “When Nick and I worked in Uganda (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), before all this was called global health, people’s expectations were very low…. Now we are talking about eradicating polio, or malaria and we have so many more resources for these problems. It’s amazing!”

Yet Desmond-Hellmann knows just talking about these challenges, or even throwing more money at them, is only the beginning.

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Why polio in Brazil is as scary as Ebola in West Africa | 

Children disabled by polio begging in Abuja, Nigeria
Children disabled by polio begging in Abuja, Nigeria
Mike Urban

The polio virus has been detected in the sewage of Sao Paulo, reports the World Health Organization, the first time the virus has shown up in Brazil in 20 years.

Genetic testing of the virus, WHO says, indicates it most likely came from Equatorial Guinea – the same general area in West Africa where health officials and humanitarian groups are battling one of the biggest outbreaks of the Ebola virus with something like 350 deaths so far.  As Humanosphere and others are reporting:

CNN Ebola epidemic out of control

Guardian West Africa Ebola epidemic is out of control

Reuters Aid group warns Ebola ‘out of control’ 

While the deadly and immediate threat posed by this latest Ebola outbreak deserves an aggressive response, it is perhaps worth comparing it to the global polio outbreak – which is arguably even more ‘out of control’ but much less likely to inspire the same drama or sense of urgency.

Yet polio is, from a public health perspective, perhaps more of the canary in a coal mine.

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Bitcoin for the poor – a no-cash business plan for the ‘next billion’ | 

Changing money
Changing money
Flickr, Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion

“Cash is the enemy of the poor,” says Rodger Voorhies, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s program aimed at improving financial services to the poor.

Sounds odd, since most poor people would be glad to have more cash.

But what Voorhies meant, speaking last week at a Seattle confab called the Next Billion, is that the poorest people on the planet routinely suffer from the insecurity of mostly dealing in cash, the inability to bank or protect their funds and the lack of credit when dealing with financial shocks or disasters (like a failed crop).

He said some 2.5 billion people, including  nearly nine out of ten Africans, operate on a cash-only basis today. The solution and the future of money, perhaps largely driven by the needs of the poor rather than the rich, may be digital.

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