Sunday, October 28, 2007

Editing the CDC on Climate Change

Take a look for yourself. The original version of Dr. Julie Gerberding's testimony before Congress about the health impact of global climate change and what she was actually allowed to say are significantly different. This is not a case of minor editing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What do Patents and Peanut Butter Have to do With Starving Kids?

There's been plenty of good press about Plumpy'nut, the "miracle" food that has saved countless starving children over the past few years. But not much has been written about the patent that sustains the small French company behind this humanitarian wonder.

Is Plumpy' nut another laudable example of doing well by doing good? Or will protecting the patent lead to yet another bottleneck in yet another under-served area of global health?

My interest in this topic started innocently enough with an offhand remark directed at me at a nutrition conference I attended two weeks ago.

The gist of the remark was that Nutriset, the maker of Plumpy'nut, was protecting its investment by warning other commercial enterprises, as well as humanitarian groups, not to produce their own versions of the therapeutic food. (The recipe is dead simple: so many peanuts, so much dried milk, a little oil and some vitamins and minerals. The innovation comes from realizing, among other things, that the right mix doesn't require dilution with water, which is often a problem in the developing world.)

A little search engine digging, a few e-mails and in-person conversations later, and it feels to this longtime health journalist that there is some meat in this story.

So, now I'm collecting information, original sources, suggestions for people to talk to, etc, at tightly focused web site called, straightforwardedly enough, Patents and Peanut Butter.

I'd like it to be a group effort--sort of an experiment in collaborative reporting. (I've been reading Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.) But am prepared to do a lot of the heavy lifting myself until things get going.

By creating a separate blog, I hope to counter some of the chaotic, hit-or-miss nature of the Web. But who knows, that may turn out to be an entirely unnecessary step. The great thing about being at Harvard for a year, is that I can try new things out while the Nieman Foundation foots the bills.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Can Malaria Be Eradicated?

Update: Larry Hollon, of the Methodist church and Perspectives, attended the Malaria Summit in Seattle and has a firsthand account on his blog.

I did a double take when I read that Bill and Melinda Gates have just challenged the world to eradicate malaria from the globe. I went back and looked at several news sources. Yes, they all agreed the word "eradicate," not "control" was used. Now that's a tall order, even for a pair of billionaire philanthropists. (Full disclosure, I'm at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship in Global Health Reporting, which is funded by the Gates Foundation.)

Back in the 1960s, health experts were convinced that widespread use of DDT against mosquitoes plus treatment with chloroquine would eradicate malaria from the world. By the 1970s, however, the environmental damage caused by massive agricultural use of the pesticide caused a sharp reduction in all DDT spraying--including inside homes against mosquitoes. Malaria has been rebounding every since.

And yet, health experts I've talked to over the years have told me that even had indoor spraying continued through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, malaria, at best, would have been controlled, not eradicated or eliminated from the face of the earth.

What's changed since the 1970s? A promising new vaccine that appears to be partially effective in children. Insecticide-treated bed nets. New combination drug treatments for malaria. Better education campaigns. The return, in some areas, of indoor spraying with DDT and other pesticides. The realization that there is no such thing as a silver bullet in fighting malaria. You need all of the above to control this disease.

But eradicate?

"Bill and I believe that these advances in science and medicine, your promising research, and the rising concern of people around the world represent an historic opportunity not just to treat malaria or to control it -- but to chart a long-term course to eradicate it," Melinda Gates told a gathering of international scientists and policymakers in Seattle, Washington (quote as reported in Agence France-Presse).

An eradication policy is very different--and much more costly--than a control policy. Just ask anyone who is trying to eliminate polio.