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The most neglected Millennium Development Goal…

...is #5, the agreement to reduce global maternal mortality levels by 75%, according to a moving appeal in The Huffington Post by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede.  She sounds a welcome call for a "Global Fund for Moms," whom she rightly calls "our best stimulus package":

In times of economic crisis, it is tempting to turn inward, to ignore or postpone the problems of the outside world and focus on ourselves. But, if we hope to thrive once again, we must realize that there are no outside problems in today's interwoven, globalized world. Each mother who dies leaves behind a devastated family and weakened community that will eventually, somehow, affect each of us. Each mother who dies deepens the financial and social strain on our world and puts economic recovery further away. Mothers are our best stimulus package because they invest in their families and in our collective future.

Half a million women and girl, disproportionately in the developing world, die in childbirth every year, yet funding for maternal health programs from wealthy nations has actually decreased.  While this sad statistic may not be surprising, given the desperate humanitarian funding shortage that has accompanied the slumping economy, it is nonetheless counterproductive.  Helping mothers around the world ensures a better future for all, in this generation and the next.

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One case of swine flu, two cases of swine flu…

Eh, who's counting anyway? Not the WHO any more (h/t Passport). But before your flabbergasted reaction -- the World Health Organization is not tracking the number of cases of a disease it has called a pandemic?!? -- consider that this is actually a sensible step.

On the one hand, unfortunately, it's only practical to stop counting; new cases are popping up all over, and, with different countries' reporting standards, keeping track would essentially be a fool's errand. On the other, the number of cases is a much less significant fact than HOW the virus is spreading, and how it is being treated. These, of course, the WHO continues to track rigorously.

There are many cases of swine flu; we know this, and we'll still have a good enough estimate of the number as it grows. But counting the global caseload can lead to a feverish panic over an ever-increasing number. I'd much rather the WHO focus on how to decrease this number.

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Swine flu vaccine hysteria

I have no doubt that the H1N1 virus is still very dangerous. I am also confident that the World Health Organization is continuing to take extreme precautions to ensure that the pandemic does not reach catastrophic levels. But this Reuters article seems designed expressly to conjure up baselessly apocalyptic fears:

Saying the new H1N1 virus is "unstoppable", the World Health Organization gave drug makers a full go-ahead to manufacture vaccines against the pandemic influenza strain on Monday and said healthcare workers should be the first to get one.

Every country will need to vaccinate citizens against the swine flu virus and must choose who else would get priority after nurses, doctors and technicians, said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO director of the Initiative for Vaccine Research.

The "unstoppable" comment was made in reference to the spread of the virus, not, oddly enough, its inevitable decimation of humankind. That H1N1 already isn't contained in one place should be obvious to just about anyone who's read the (equally frantic) reports of swine flu popping up in dozens of countries, or who can conceive of how keeping tiny little viruses from spreading all over an interconnected globe might be a trifle difficult.

As for vaccines, Reuters' depiction suggests a terrifying movie scene: government bureaucrats choosing who lives and dies while millions die for lack of the precious vaccine. These vaccines are necessary, yes, particularly for certain vulnerable populations, but they are not the only method of preventing contagion. The WHO describes the current severity of the pandemic as "moderate," with "most patients experiencing uncomplicated, self-limited illness." Instructing countries to implement vaccination strategies depending on local conditions is not leaving patients at the whims of capricious bureaucrats; rather, it reflects a smart realization on WHO's part that every country's epidemiological situation is different, and that each will have to incorporate vaccine and non-vaccine related strategies differently.

But an "unstoppable" virus with not enough vaccines makes for a better movie headline, I suppose.

(image from Center for Disease Control and Prevention, via Wikimedia Commons)

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New Report Tracks Global AIDS funding

UNAIDS and the Kaiser Family Foundation just issued a new report on global funding for HIV. This is an annual exercise, where they try to analyze bilateral assistance on HIV to low and middle-income countries. In 2008, HIV funding reached its highest level ever. Some highlights from the report:

*UNAIDS estimates that $22.1 billion was needed to address the epidemic in low- and middle- income countries in 2008.  Of this, $15.6 billion was available from all sources.

*Disbursements have risen significantly over the past several years: Between 2002 and 2008, disbursements increased by more than six-fold, including a 56 percent increase in the last period.

*In 2008, disbursements fell short of commitments by about a billion dollars. This doesn’t necessarily represent donor failure – sometimes disbursements just take time.

*The US accounted for 51.3% of all disbursed funds.

This is a useful report, and helps to bring accountability to a field with no single tracking body. It is not, however, without its flaws. According to its methodology notes, it doesn’t include funding to Central Asia or the former Soviet Union in general. It also doesn’t count UN agency funding for HIV if that funding comes from the general UN budget and not a donor earmark for HIV.

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Soccer vs. Malaria Saturday on Fox Soccer Channel

(by the UN Foundation's Shannon Raybold)

This Saturday, the U.S. Soccer Men’s National Team takes on Haiti in a battle for glory in the CONCACAF Gold Cup! In addition to an intense game between two of the region’s top teams, the game will also highlight soccer’s leadership in the global fight to end malaria deaths through United Against Malaria.

United Against Malaria is a partnership of football stars, non-governmental organizations, foundations, governments, corporations, and the general public who have joined forces ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to unite in the fight against malaria.

Fox Soccer Channel is a leading partner in United Against Malaria.  Its “Every Goal Saves A Life” program sends a mosquito net to Africa for every goal scored on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Español throughout the 2008-2009 season, ensuring that each goal on the field brings us one step closer to our shared goal of ending malaria deaths in Africa.

During the broadcast, campaign partner and Population Services International spokesperson Molly Sims will give a shout-out to United Against Malaria and how the soccer community is coming together as a team to defeat malaria for once and for all. She’ll be cheering on our fellow United Against Malaria team, US Soccer!

Be sure to tune in! The US will defend its Gold Cup title from Haiti from 7-9pm on Fox Soccer Channel.

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What climate change looks like–Dengue Fever

Dengue fever is painful, unpleasant, and contagious. It used to be limited in its geographic area – a tropical disease. That is changing. We’ve seen a steady spread of dengue’s territory over the last 30 years, and dengue prevalence has increased by three thousand percent over the last fifty years.

The National Resources Defense Council just released a report on dengue fever’s spread in the United States. They found that “mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue have spread into at least 28 US states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, and even states as far north as New York and New Hampshire.” That’s right – a tropical disease in New Hampshire. Now might be a good time to buy stock in mosquito repellant and screen doors.

In case you were wondering: dengue is also known as breakbone fever, and it’s an infection spread by mosquitoes. (Not the same kind of mosquito that spreads malaria, because that would be too easy). Its death rate is not that high, but it spreads quickly. It is a very, very painful illness – thus the name “breakbone”. And some unlucky cases develop a complication called Dengue hemorrhagic fever, which has a death rate of 2.5%-10% and is just as unpleasant as it sounds.

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India annuls anti-sodomy law

The Indian High Court formally annuled a 150 year old provision criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” known as Section 337.   UNAIDS is pleased:

“The Delhi High Court has restored the dignity and human rights of millions of men who have sex with men and transgendered people in India,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Mr Michel Sidibé. “Oppressive laws such as Section 377, drive people underground making it much harder to reach them with HIV prevention, treatment and care services.”

According to UNAIDS technical advisor Pradeep Kakkattil this ruling will also help health workers who have been harassed by the police for simply doing their jobs.

"Health workers providing help to homosexual HIV sufferers are also working in precarious situations, he added. He said that it's not uncommon for police to arrest you because you are providing information on something illegal."

A good day in India for sure. 

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No danger of flying pig flu

That is, swine flu the H1N1 virus doesn't look like it's mixing with its avian counterpart to form some sort of volatile, death-defying H1N1+H5N1 (H5N2?) super-pandemic.

The World Health Organisation said on Thursday that the H1N1 virus was stable and there was no sign yet of it mixing with other influenza viruses.

Some health officials have raised concerns that if H1N1, known by many as swine flu, combined with the much deadlier H5N1 bird flu virus then the pandemic could claim many more lives.

"The virus is still very stable," WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan told reporters at a news briefing in Moscow when asked if there were any signs of the virus mixing with other strains such as avian flu.

A stable pandemic is still a pandemic, sure, but it befits the calm way with which the virus should be treated to make note of this relative stability.

(image from flickr user ittybittiesforyou under a Creative Commons license)

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A Response to the Lancet

Ed Note:  Last week, The Lancet published an editorial and two studies about the current state of global health initiatives for the developing world.  The following is a response to The Lancet from Andrea Gay, Exeucitve Director of Children's Health at the United Nations Foundation and Dr. Dan Carucci, Vice President for Global Health at the United Nations Foundation. 

While two studies in the Lancet medical journal on Friday, June 19, raised awareness about the importance of strengthening health systems worldwide and working with the United Nations to improve global health, it was shocking to see that the researchers failed to recognize the significance of the Measles Initiative, a model public private partnership that has produced real results.

Since 2001, the Measles Initiative has supported the vaccination of more than 600 million children in more than 60 countries. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of children dying from measles has decreased by 74% worldwide and nearly 90% in sub-Saharan Africa alone.