Last Ditch Effort to Preserve US Global Health R&D Spending

header-ghtc-logoWashington DC - Sequestration hits the US federal budget on Friday. The Washington Post features a countdown to Friday on the front page each day. News reports and the talk around town radiates a certainty that the across the board budget cuts will go through on Friday.

That fact is not dissuading global health activists from warning of the harm caused by budget losses. A group of activists descended upon the US capital to meet with lawmakers and issue a congressional briefing on the setback to global health research that the cuts pose.

Among those pushing lawmakers to maintain the US’ leadership in the global fight against the diseases poverty is the Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC), which issued a report outlining the ways that the US can continue to be a global health research leader. The group is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and housed within Seattle-based PATH, an organization that specializes in finding technological solutions to health problems in poor countries.

“We know that policymakers are currently facing difficult budget decisions. But any reductions in funds could eliminate essential support for the development of global health tools and slow or halt the progress made against addressing a number of deadly diseases,” said Kaitlin Christenson, MPH, director of the GHTC in a press release.

US funding for neglected disease research and development has declined to $100 million below the peak in 2009. Despite the declines, the report points out that the UN remains the leading funder of such research. “Other reports found that cutting funding for global health and R&D programs would barely make a dent in reducing the US federal deficit but would have a crippling impact on people’s health and lives around the world,” says the report.

Since research and development work is carried out by multiple agencies within the US government, the sequestration cuts can have a wider effect. PATH President and CEO Steve Davis pointed towards this citing the work of the Department of Defense in developing an AIDS vaccine and the CDC’s dengue detection work. The small amount of the federal budget that is spent on this research and development is a strong investment, he argues.

“US taxpayers are rightly demanding results from federal expenditures,” says Davis, “and the wise investments our government has made in global health R&D are clearly providing excellent returns.”

The same argument was made by ONE Campaign volunteer, Ali Escalante, when she spoke with the Inter Press Service. She pointed out the gains made through US global health investments saying, “For instance, there are currently over eight million people being treated for AIDS, up from 200,000 just 10 years ago. So we project out that if these cuts happen, 170,000 people would stop receiving U.S.-funded treatments. And we also know that those people will die.”

A more dire stance was taken by Laurie Garrett of the Council for foreign relations who said that the cuts were paramount to malpractice. “At eight percent, now you’re talking about dead bodies…One thing a physician is trained to do is not to end treatment until a patient doesn’t need it any more. Cutting off this funding now means hundreds of thousands of lives,” she told IPS.

Despite these warnings, all signs point to sequestration going into effect. The GHTC report says that the US should maintain or even increase its research and development work in global health. If the cuts go through, the coalition and advocates will now have to press each of the agencies to keep global health programs intact at the cost of other foreign aid programs.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.