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As Obama heads to Africa, an entrepreneurial approach to fighting disease takes root

The White House has said that President Obama's trip to Africa, where he will attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, will focus on accelerating economic growth, strengthening democratic institutions and improving security in African countries. When the president arrives in Kenya he will find that new and innovative approaches to fighting disease on the continent have the potential to invigorate progress in each of those priority areas.

It is no secret that Africa bears a disproportionate share of the world's disease burden. Our continent has 15 percent of the global population but more than half the world's deaths from infectious and parasitic disease. More than 90 percent of the world's half-million deaths from malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and the vast majority of those who die are children. HIV/AIDS continues to kill more than one million Africans annually and there are 1.5 million new infections each year.

Many parts of Africa have been showing enviable economic growth rates. But this enormous disease burden, coupled with relatively weak national health systems, presents a major obstacle to ensuring continued and sustainable economic progress. At the same time, investments in health improvements are known to lead to higher productivity and economic output while easing the enormous costs to societies of treating so many sick people. In short, better health leads to better economic conditions.

The innovation economy is making important inroads in the health R&D sector globally and within Africa, yielding new tools for prevention and diagnostics. Thanks to this, policy makers are beginning to view resources devoted to public health not as costs but as down payments on economic growth. International funders are increasingly linking health R&D with the goal of moving beyond foreign aid to a more sustainable model for achieving both health and development objectives.

The spirit of locally generated health R&D entrepreneurialism is rooted in the idea that Africans themselves must become more involved in finding solutions to the diseases that are devastating their communities. To some extent it is a question of scientific logic, as addressing complex and region-specific strains of a virus like HIV requires that at least some of the research take place on the local level.

We have already seen encouraging results from African research entrepreneurialism in HIV/AIDS. Data from U.S. government-funded, African-supported clinical and epidemiological studies is providing critical insights into the complex relationship between HIV and the body's immune system. Key participation by African researchers and by study volunteers living with HIV has led to the identification of dozens of new antibodies capable of neutralizing most of HIV's many variants, and has helped launch a renaissance in research toward a vaccine.

Yes, we are talking seriously about a vaccine for AIDS. Can you imagine it? I can, and so can many of my colleagues in the African health community, thanks in no small measure to the groundbreaking work that is now taking place.

The prospect of ending HIV/AIDS once and for all, and relegating to history the horrible devastation it has caused on our continent, is now firmly within our grasp. Indeed, helping to define an African-led HIV research agenda and realize this promise is what has propelled me to take my Ivy League education back to Kenya and to lately join a new endeavor called VISTA - Vaccine Immunology Science and Technology for Africa - an international consortium working to find an AIDS vaccine for Africa and within Africa.

This is the heart of health research entrepreneurialism. People whose own lives and communities are at stake, invigorated by the dream of a better tomorrow, who are dedicating their unique skills and experience-based knowledge toward advancing the enterprise of disease eradication. But to make this happen, we must strengthen sustainable capacity. And the surest way to do that across Africa is to provide a foundation for scientific inquiry across a wide spectrum of disciplines, advancing home-grown innovation and putting dynamic health solutions on the fast track to success.

To paraphrase an African proverb, we are determined to act as if it is impossible to fail. The entrepreneurialism of African scientists and researchers is an essential element of our continent's overall future success, and we urge Obama and the upcoming Global Entrepreneurial Summit to help us create and sustain an environment in which innovation will thrive.

Ochiel, a Kenyan national, is an immunologist and director of African Laboratory Programs for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), a global not-for-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the development of safe, effective, accessible, preventive HIV vaccines for use throughout the world.

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