Gordon Duncan

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PATH celebrates 34 years of life-saving gizmos | 

Seattle-based PATH today celebrated 34 years of finding creative ways to use science and technology to save millions of lives, mostly children, and one achievement this year that was unusually ground-breaking.

A vaccine made only for poor people.

That sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. Vaccines have to be made by the drug industry and industry needs to make money. In central Africa, a particular strain of meningitis has for generations killed, maimed and terrified communities from Senegal to Ethiopia.

Developing a vaccine against this bacteria was long possible, but the drug industry saw no market for it. This disease was too geographically specific and the people (or the governments) too poor to be able to afford a “designer” vaccine.

But, as I posted on last December, PATH’s Marc LaForce was determined to get this vaccine made and paid for because the well-being of millions of Africans depended upon it.

“It took 10 years to develop this vaccine,” LaForce said today at PATH’s annual fundraising Breakfast for Global Health event, this year held art Bell Harbor. It took financial as well as technical innovation, as described on PATH’s web site.

In Burkina Faso, where the vaccination campaign started this winter and which used to see thousands of cases of bacterial meningitis, LaForce said this year “there has been only one case.” At the PATH breakfast, St. Joseph’s choir mimicked the sound of rain — end of meningitis season — to celebrate the achievement.

Tom Paulson

St. Joseph's Choir, mimicking the sound of rain and end of meningitis season

Chris Elias, president of PATH, said some 20 million children and young adults have been vaccinated so far with assistance from UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organization, countless health workers in Africa and, most recently, with $100 million in new funding to expand coverage from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

That is in itself an amazing success story, he said, but what makes PATH’s Meningitis Vaccine Project “one of the most important milestones in public health” is how they demonstrated that a vaccine of use only to poor countries could, in fact, be produced cheaply (about $.50 a dose) and profitably by industry.

Another milestone celebrated at the PATH breakfast today was a reunion of the founders of PATH, Gordon Duncan, Richard Mahoney and Gordon Perkin. The three started PATH (which initially went by a different, much less phonetic, name) primarily to work on improving maternal health in poor countries.

PATH, which today is one of the world leaders in the burgeoning field of global health, didn’t always have it so easy. I can remember going to visit them in the 1980s in their non-descript building on the Lake Washington ship canal, working on projects in cramped and hardly luxurious settings. At one point, they were even at risk of going out of business due to cuts in donor funding.

But they persevered, moving into new areas with technological solutions or improvements focused on problems in vaccination, water safety and other health needs. Eventually, PATH caught the eye of the (at the time new) Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The rest, as they say, is history.

“We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Richard Mahoney, who is now working on a (Gates-funded) project in South Korea, the Dengue Vaccine Initiative.

Tom Paulson

PATH founders Richard Mahoney, Gordon Duncan and Gordon Perkin