PATH on a ‘new’ campaign for global health equity

Bill Gates and PATH CEO Steve Davis discuss the push for global health equity at PATH's annual breakfast and fundraiser.

The relationship between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Seattle-based PATH, best known for its innovative technical solutions targeting diseases of poverty, is so close that some often look to see what PATH is doing in order to judge the sometimes inscrutable intentions of the world’s biggest philanthropy.

So watch out for more talk of ‘global health equity’ – the buzz phrase of the moment and the theme of PATH’s annual breakfast and a new $100 million fund-raising campaign.

“In the last 25 years, the world has actually cut in half the number of women dying in childbirth and children dying under the age of five,” said Steve Davis, CEO at PATH. But many millions of people still die from fairly easily preventable or treatable diseases and disorders, Davis said. So, he said, PATH is focusing on four of those killers: Malaria, women and reproductive health services, newborn health and children’s health.

So, well, that’s not new at all. More like a ‘doubling down’ on the organization’s well-established areas of expertise.

PATH was launched in Seattle in the late 1970s, by the private research firm Battelle, to focus on finding new simple and cheap methods aimed at improving women’s reproductive health. Bill Gates Sr. discovered PATH after being tasked by his son, chief of Microsoft at the time, to find a cause he could support.

“I was talking to my dad about philanthropy … about giving back,” Bill Gates told the PATH breakfast crowd in a brief chat on stage with Davis. Bill Sr, who had long been active with Planned Parenthood, had run across PATH because of its work on women’s health. That, Gates said, expanded more broadly into a philanthropic interest in many other matters of women’s and children’s health – especially vaccines.

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The Gates Foundation, having initially focused on family planning, moved away from that focus (perhaps due to the controversy that always attends reproductive health matters) to invest in children’s health and vaccinations. It also invested heavily in finding an AIDS vaccine and a malaria vaccine, essentially reviving the latter field of research.

“PATH has been our closest partner ever since,” Gates said. “PATH is out there on the front lines.”

PATH became, in a sense, the primary implementer of the Gates Foundation’s global health agenda and grew from what had been a fairly small operation on the ship canal into one of the world’s leading global health organizations on all sorts of fronts – including, lately, a lot more Gates-supported work on family planning and reproductive health. Bill Gates, as he always does, credited Melinda for that bold shift back in focus.

And Fiona Walugembe credited PATH and its supporters for helping women like her. Walugembe almost died in childbirth and now works for PATH in Uganda on a project providing women with another one of those PATH innovations – a simple, single-dose long-acting (and reversible) injectable form of Depo-Provera contraceptive, called Sayana Press. Here are stories by the New York Times and PATH about the project.

Fiona Walugembe

Fiona Walugembe

“I am an empowered African women,” Walugembe said, to much applause. And so are many more Ugandan women, she added, as PATH trains community health workers and women about this option giving them more personal control over pregnancy and childbirth. The average Ugandan mother has six children today, Walugembe said.

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“This is just a fantastic thing,” said Bill Gates. The Sayana Press contraceptive can be deployed without the need for many highly skilled health workers, he noted, and empowers individual women.

So perhaps that’s what meant by ‘global health equity’ which, like ‘innovation’ or many of the other buzzwords afflicting the humanitarian and development community, isn’t always totally clear or necessarily new in concept. We can assume it is, generally, about reducing the burden of disease on the poor and empowering them rather than equalizing things globally by making more of us in the rich world poorer and sicker.

Whatever global health equity means, the long and successful partnership between PATH and the Gates Foundation means this focus likely deserves watching as a possible tagline for another transformative new direction in the fight against disease. The new fund-raising campaign, which has already brought in some $74 million, was kicked off by $15 million from Gates to do matching funds.

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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 tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • William Hayes

    You write: “We can assume [‘global health equity’] is, generally, about reducing the burden of disease on the poor and empowering them rather than equalizing things globally by making more of us in the rich world poorer and sicker.”

    It’s hard for me to know what I think about your statement without knowing where you sit on the 99% 1% spectrum. If you’re up towards the high end (along with Bill & Melinda), I’d be inclined to see you (along with them) a whole lot poorer and sicker! LOL