Innovating our way towards global health solutions


At the Oct 2011 launch event for the Humanitarian Centre’s Global Health Year, Dr. Peter A Singer, of Grand Challenges Canada, focused on innovation, ‘creative partnership’, and improved governance as essential for tackling today’s global health challenges.

by Micaela Collord

 ‘Stinky sock’ boxes, genetically modified drought resistant corn, mutant mosquitoes, serum meningitis vaccines… scientific innovations such as these point the way towards a ‘brighter tomorrow’ in global health, says Dr. Peter Singer.

Speaking at the Oct. 2011 launch event for the Humanitarian Centre’s Global Health year, Dr. Singer focused on innovation, ‘creative partnership’, and improved governance as essential for tackling today’s global health challenges.

Innovation comes in a variety of often quite unexpected forms. The memorable ‘stinky sock’ box was invented by Fredros Okumu following a sports-inspired eureka moment. Fredros noticed that mosquitoes were particularly attracted to the smelly socks of boys after a football match. This observation prompted the young Tanzanian scientist to create a box capable of emitting a like odour, thereby attracting and killing mosquitoes with the help of an insecticide.

But innovation requires effective partnership to see the light of day. Fredros was the ‘first successful southern innovator’ sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative. Speaking as the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, Dr. Singer emphasized the importance the Grand Challenge’s ‘bottom-up’ approach, enabling southern innovators to access initial grants of $100,000 with potential follow-up grants of $1 million.

These partnerships form the core of the third element in Dr. Singer’s global health strategy, that is to say, ‘good governance’. Dr. Singer identified the Grand Challenge initiative itself as a kind of ‘governance model’ encouraging ‘different groups from different countries to come together to address global challenges’.

Also under the rubric of good governance, Dr. Singer suggested much could be gained from working with communities in the global south. Social advocacy could prove a powerful tool for lobbying local government to adopt new innovations through, for example, financing recently developed vaccines. local communities could take matters into their own hands by creating community-sponsored insurance schemes along the same lines as the already widespread group-based funeral insurance model.

The keynote speech and the ensuing discussion conveyed an overwhelming feeling of optimism. Dame Sandra Dawson, the chair for the event, echoed the general positive attitude in her concluding remarks following Dr. Singer’s talk. To paraphrase, ‘no boundary, no barrier stands as a true obstacle in the way of partnership. It may look like a brick wall, but trust and respect can bring us together’.

The launch event also featured a number of ‘quick fire’ presentations introducing the audience to a number of Cambridge-based actors working in the global health field. The Public Library of Science (PLoS), the Centre for Health Leadership and Enterprise, the PHG Foundation, and Addenbrooke’s Abroad all promise to remain central contributors to this year’s activity and debate. For the time being, they provided the flavour of what should be a very interesting year to come.

Dr. Singer’s Book The Grandest Challenge: Taking Life Saving Science from the Lab to the Village

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