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Let’s tackle new health threats before they reach us

Let’s tackle new health threats before they reach us
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Thirty years ago, AIDS was a death sentence. Today, this is no longer the case; the scale of global progress against HIV/AIDs is one of the great accomplishments in the history of health.

Anti-retroviral therapies, or ARVs, have helped HIV/AIDS patients regain “near-normal” lives. Before ARVs were introduced, life expectancy after diagnosis was 18 months, while today patients live for decades. This extraordinary progress is a testament to how science can change the course of history and a powerful justification for increasing — not cutting — U.S. government investment in global health research and development.

America’s investments in global health R&D supported the development of the first ARVs and their successors. And U.S.-supported programs like the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria brought these lifesaving treatments to people around the world.

Today, an estimated 19.5 million people globally are being treated with ARVs, compared to a few hundred thousand 15 years ago. More than three quarters of pregnant women living with HIV have taken these medicines to prevent their babies from being exposed to the virus. New HIV infections among children have declined by almost 50 percent since 2010.

That’s not to say the fight is over. We still don’t have a cure, or a vaccine. Eliminating the disease entirely will require new innovations.

Beyond HIV we have also made advances, but continue to face new global health threats including emerging diseases like Zika and Ebola and growing drug resistance, which makes current medicines less effective against infectious threats.

The need for research to develop new drugs, vaccines, and cures is clear. Yet, in recent years U.S. funding for global health R&D has largely declined, and federal programs supporting this work have been targeted for further cuts by the Trump administration.

According to a new report from the Global Health Technologies Coalition, US R&D investments have supported the development of 42 new global health products since 2000, including four of the five new technologies used to diagnose Ebola. US funding has also supported 128 promising products in late-stage development that could turn the tide for malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases.

These tools are transforming the world, contributing to a 60 percent reduction in the number of deaths from malaria, a 40 percent reduction in the number of child deaths, and a 30 percent reduction in maternal mortality.

Better, healthier lives through the advent of new technologies also helps countries become more stable and less prone to conflict. For example, since 2004 the countries in sub-Saharan Africa where PEPFAR worked had 40 percent less political instability and violent activity than their neighbors.

These returns come from just a tiny sliver of the federal budget. In 2015, the United States invested $1.7 billion in global health R&D — less than one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That small investment yielded big economic dividends — $0.89 of every $1 that the U.S. invests in global health R&D is spent in the United States, creating jobs, attracting private sector investment, and spurring the economy.

Investing in global health, including R&D, represent our values abroad but also puts America first. Between 2007 and 2015, US-funded global health R&D is estimated to have created nearly 200,000 new jobs and generated an additional $33 billion in economic output. Texas — a state battling Zika and Chagas within its borders — received more than $200 million in federal funding for global health research in this time period, equipping Texas institutions to develop solutions for Texas’s evolving health threats.

The world is facing unprecedented health challenges. Diseases are moving to places where they have never been seen before — including the United States — and are changing at a rapid place. Unless we are better prepared, we risk each new outbreak turning into a global crisis. Cutting federal global health R&D funding means we cut surveillance and prevention, not just the research.

Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. Imagine what could be possible if we strengthened U.S. investment in global health R&D. Rather than reading fraught headlines about the next mystery disease, we can celebrate more breakthroughs — and greater peace and prosperity at home and abroad.

Ambassador Mark Dybul is professor of Medicine at the Georgetown University Medical Center and is the former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and former U.S. Global HIV/AIDS Coordinator.