A third of the world is currently infected with tuberculosis (TB). Last year, over a million people died as a result of AIDS-related illnesses and half a million from malaria. Mortalities from these epidemics are staggering, despite improved knowledge of effective prevention and treatment methods.
The solutions for eradicating the world’s most devastating epidemics are by no means neat or clearly defined. This was made clear on Sept. 15th, when McGill hosted a panel of global health professionals, including Canada’s Minister of Health Dr. Jane Philpott, who addressed Canada’s role in ending AIDS, TB, and malaria. On the eve of The Global Fund’s Fifth Replenishment Conference to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria, the panel of speakers discussed the pervasive and devastating effect that these diseases continue to have in both the developing and developed worlds.
“[What] we haven’t quite figured out how to do [is how] to make Canadians, to make our neighbors, to make people around the world realize that the pandemics of AIDS, the reality of malaria […], and tuberculosis in our world [are] outrageous; but, more than outrageous, [they are] solvable,” Philpott said.
The panel emphasized the need for Canada to focus its efforts on targeting populations disproportionately affected by these diseases: Indigenous peoples, homosexual men, sex workers, prisoners, and drug users. In Canada, TB rates for indigenous peoples are 35 times higher, while in Inuit communities they are 375 times higher than the rest of the Canadian population.
“We need to become better human beings, and […] face the fact that until each and every person is treated with dignity and respect we won’t be able to treat the diseases,” Philpott said.
“[We] have to become a more inclusive human family,” said Mark Dybul, Executive Director of The Global Fund.
A key question at the conference was posed by Philippe Gros, Vice-Dean of Life Sciences in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.
“How do you take […] this enormous amount of scientific data and actually translate it into outcomes for the populations that are affected?” asked Gros.
“[The answer is] to stop looking at things as global or even national, and […] actually to go community by community, use the data that we have, use [it] to drive decision-making,” said Dybul.
Throughout the panel discussion, focus was on the importance of keeping a human perspective.
“People are not numbers, infections are not simply statistics, [and] death is much more than just data,” said Philpott.
This candid lens particularly struck Sophie Huddart, a McGill PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology.
“Even [these] people, who are at the highest levels of organizing global health, still have a focus on the individuals who are affected,” Huddart said.
For a more individualistic approach to find effective solutions for these epidemics, Peter Singer, Chief Executive Officer for Grand Challenges Canada, stressed the importance of further innovation. Singer went on to give examples of innovations in patient self-management including the use of text messaging to increase the frequency of HIV testing among Kenyan school-girls. In addition, HIVSmart, a mobile-based app developed at McGill and the McGill University Health Centre, aims to improve rates of testing and treatment for HIV.
Perhaps the strongest and most frequently repeated messages from the speakers were their expressions of excitement towards the large number of students they saw sitting in the audience, surrounded by other members of the academic community.
“Current students are the generation that will or will not end these epidemics,” Dybul said.
“It will be [up to] you to make the difference,” Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director for the Stop TB Partnership said.