Looking forward to 2017 with optimism

January / February 2017 | Volume 16, Issue 1

Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

I am energized to begin the new year, with so many opportunities to advance global health on the horizon. Even after more than a decade as Fogarty director, I wake up every day eager to lead such a wonderful group of passionate and dedicated scientists and administrators. We remain committed to our mission to work towards a world in which the frontiers of health research extend around the globe, and scientific advances are implemented to improve the health and extend longevity for all the world’s people.

Of paramount importance, of course, is the safety and security of our own citizens, whether they are traveling abroad in regions with malaria or living in parts of the U.S. facing the Zika virus. I’m encouraged at recent progress in our understanding of that terrible virus that will help lead to an effective vaccine.

And I’m excited at the news an experimental Ebola vaccine was found to be highly protective in a recent trial led by the WHO, conducted with numerous international collaborators. It’s another example of why it’s critical that we participate in the global scientific community, where we can learn from each other, remain at the forefront of science and speed discoveries.

But a vaccine alone will not protect us from another Ebola outbreak. It’s critical that vulnerable countries are equipped to respond, not only with lab equipment and supplies, but also with well-trained epidemiologists, lab scientists and others. That’s why I’m thrilled that Fogarty is gearing up the first phase of our program to begin to design research training programs in Sierra Leone and Liberia - two of the countries hit hardest by Ebola. By supporting U.S. scientific partners to engage in this effort, we hope to build capacity in West Africa so local researchers will have the skills to develop new diagnostic tests and treatments, evaluate vaccines and identify the most effective intervention strategies for disease outbreaks, when Ebola inevitably strikes again.

I’m also enthusiastic about the work we’ve been doing with our international partners to address the growing epidemic of chronic diseases. It’s particularly gratifying to see that mental health research - a neglected discipline in many parts of the world - is the subject of the latest funding call by the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD), which previously has focused on hypertension, diabetes and lung diseases. I’m delighted that so many of my colleagues at NIH and around the world see the scientific value of building international research networks to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.

One of our most significant projects - known as the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI) - is another program high on my agenda, as we prepare to begin its second phase. MEPI is aimed at strengthening the quality of African health education, building scientific capacity to carry out locally relevant research and extending scientific training to rural district hospitals and clinics, where the need for personnel is greatest. Supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the program has already helped build skills to generate evidence that can improve the effective implementation of PEPFAR programs.

We’re also expanding the efforts of Fogarty’s Center for Global Health Studies to build bridges between scientists and PEPFAR implementers and ensure the latest discoveries are quickly put into practice. Our latest initiative focuses on HIV prevention and treatment for adolescents, who are a particularly challenging group with unique characteristics. If left unchecked, new infections in young people could jeopardize our efforts to stall the epidemic. This builds on our past collaborations with PEPFAR to study how to more effectively prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission and treat the growing incidence of chronic illnesses in those living with HIV.

As we engage in this compelling work, we are appreciative of the continued support of the American people and their recognition of the value of investing in global health. Indeed, seven in 10 surveyed agree the U.S. should participate in international efforts to improve health, according to a 2016 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The fact that this sentiment is shared by many members of Congress - reflected in their long-standing bipartisan support for research funding - bodes well for our future.

As 2017 begins, I look forward with optimism. Although we face many challenges, I believe the scientific opportunities to improve global health have never been greater.

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