Bill Gates & Party Tricks: Happy Belated World Immunization Week!

When I first clicked on this YouTube video link, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But once the video started playing, I quickly realized it’s a scripted (but entertaining) demonstration of vaccine cold chains featuring Hans Rosling with a cameo from Bill Gates. The topic of the video is how cold chains function and the challenges in getting vaccines through an uninterrupted cold chain to those who need them. Using juice, containers, and glasses, Rosling answers the question “What percent of 1 year old children receive basic vaccines?” In the spirit of World Immunization Week, which ended yesterday, take a few minutes to watch the video.

After watching, I did a little digging to find out more about Rosling and the Gapminder Foundation, which produced the video. Turns out this video is the first in a series of “Demographic Party Tricks” that are part of the Foundation’s Ignorance Project. The gist of it is they’re on a mission to cure ignorance when it comes to key global development trends and statistics.

I spent a significant amount of time on their website exploring their various data sets, labs, and interactive graphs. Some of my favorites are:

  • Africa is Not a Country (a personal pet peeve of mine)
  • The Wealth and Health of Nations
  • Stop Calling Them Developing Countries
  • The River of Myths (sound familiar?)

Click here to take a look around. You may learn a thing or two! And let us know which sections of the site you like most in the comments below.

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2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter

As most of you probably know, last week the Gates Foundation released their Annual Letter addressing three myths that Bill and Melinda Gates believe are blocking progress for poor people all over the world. Previous letters focused on the Foundation’s annual activities, so it’s quite a change that this year’s letter cites examples and data from around the world to disprove the following:

Myth 1: Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
Myth 2: Foreign aid is a big waste
Myth 3: Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Overall the letter is a very optimistic one, painting a bright picture of the future for the world’s poor and sick. It includes a combination of videos, infographics, and a lot of quotables which I’m sure we’ll see in other places. If you haven’t had a chance to read through it yet, I encourage you to take some time to do so. It’s worth it.

In terms of global health and development, it’s easy for us to lose perspective on how much progress is actually being achieved and for that reason I can appreciate the optimism in the letter. However, I see the letter as more of a cautionary piece or call to action, warning people against believing all the “bad” development news in the media. I don’t think it will truly dispel any of these myths, but it’s done a good job of raising interesting questions, starting conversations, causing controversy, and spurring critical discussions around the three myths and their related topics. In fact, the letter has resulted in a lot of global health professionals and others sharing their opinions online so join the conversation by reading the letter, watching the series of short videos here, and posting your reactions and comments below.

Side note 1: For those who are interested, Bill Gates went on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel last week to talk about the letter.

Side note 2: Bill Nye the Science Guy is featured in one of the videos that focuses specifically on global health and child mortality and two members of the cast of the MythBusters TV show are featured in another video

Bill Gates: Global health dictator or just raging hypocrite?

This was cross-posted on my new professional, self-titled blog.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Bill Gates in response to an article in Alliance magazine, by global health pundits Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh, which argued that Bill Gates had become a “global health dictator” because of the amount of power and influence that his vast wealth gave him in setting global health and development priorities. I took the opposite opinion – that a man is free to do with his wealth as he pleases, and we shouldn’t shoulder him with the responsibility of setting the entire global health agenda just because he has the wealth to fund most of it.

I stand by what I said, but it now appears that potentially more sinister side of Bill Gates and Microsoft is in the spotlight for commentary: dodging taxes. In an editorial in the Guardian, Ian Birrell juxtaposes Gates’s “aid gospel” with the fact that Microsoft, on whose board he still sits, goes to great lengths to avoid paying billions of dollars of taxes.

He made his name as a sharp-elbowed businessman who rode the technology revolution with such style. But these days he is far more famous for his philanthropy, as a saviour of the poor who has made it his life’s mission to change the world for the better. So it was something of a shock to see he is still the richest person on the planet, boosting his fortune by another £9.6bn last year to an astonishing £48bn after a big rise in the Microsoft share price.

Clearly, he relishes his latest role, becoming increasingly influential and outspoken. He loves to lecture nations on how they should give away more of their taxpayers’ money, urging them to hit the arbitrary and anachronistic target of handing over 0.7% of gross national income in foreign aid. He has applauded David Cameron for Britain’s embrace of the target, even condemning a Lords’ committee that criticised this cash cascade, while constantly telling other countries to do the same.

But like those other aid apostles Bono and Bob Geldof, he risks being perceived as a rank hypocrite. For he sees nothing wrong in complex tax avoidance schemes while telling nations how to spend their revenues, notwithstanding the growing body of opinion that aid undermines development and democracy by propping up poorly run regimes. The latest expert to highlight this “aid illusion” is Professor Angus Deaton, the leading expert on measuring global poverty and a former true believer, in his fine book The Great Escape.

It seems a given that Gates will be a controversial figure – obscenely wealthy people almost always are – but he has made a name for himself in the last decade

Public health dictator and tax dodger. Photo credit: World Economic Forum.
Public health dictator and tax dodger.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum.

as a tireless advocate for combating disease, developing sustainable agriculture, and advancing technological solutions to problems of poverty. He spent most of 2011 pushing his Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett, an attempt to persuade the wealthy of the world to donate half of their fortune to charitable causes. He is an almost guaranteed presence at big-name aid conferences and confabs, and now he and his wife are almost considered experts in their pet project areas – vaccination campaigns and green agriculture for Bill, and family planning for Melinda.

With such high visibility, it is highly discouraging to learn just how extensive Microsoft’s tax-dodging practices are:

Moving earnings through low corporation tax countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore means the company saved itself, according to one estimate, almost £3bn annually in tax. A Harvard law professor pointed out that Microsoft’s divisions in three low-tax nations employed fewer than 2,000 people, but supposedly recorded about £9.4bn of pre-tax profit in 2011 – more than the 88,000 employees working in all its other global divisions.

In Britain, Microsoft reported revenues of £1.7bn in a single year for online sales on which it paid no corporation tax. This is why if you look at the small print when buying software through its British website, you find you are dealing with a Luxembourg offshoot. A newspaper investigation found a small office there with just six staff handling online sales from around Europe.

It is well-documented that the shuffle of corporate profits through tax havens hurts those in poverty by sheltering tax revenue that would go toward food aid, education, and medicine. What kind of aid champion does that make Bill Gates, if his own company circumvents tax responsibility totaling 3% of the global aid budget?

I still maintain that “global health dictator” is not the right label for Mr. Gates, but perhaps Ian Birrell is right – maybe “hypocrite” fits better.

Global Health Weekly News Round-up

Politics and Policies:

  • U.S. Court rules controversial stem cell research as legal.
  • U.S. Court ruled that cigarette companies do not need to show graphic warning images.
  • The Food and Drug Administration U.S. (FDA) Department of Health is enforcing stricter inspection of food imported from Japan since March 14 last year in response to the radiation leak incident at Fukushima nuclear power plant.
  • UK government wants hospitals to expand overseas.
  • UK government will spend £2m to tackle cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone.

Programs:

  • Nigeria receives U.S. $225million from Global Fund to prevent and treat malaria.
  • Bill Gates has launched a search of a new toilet suited for developing countries- to avoid deaths and diseases due to poor living conditions.
  • Vietnam puts locally-made medical waste incinerator into operation. It has a capacity of 30-50 kilos of medical waste per hour.
  • Planned Parenthood launches new initiative in U.S. to fight breast cancer. It will use $3 million donations for its breast health initiative- screenings and education.

 Research:

  • Researchers at National Institutes of Health have identified rare immune disease in Asian people like HIV. This disease has been named as adult-onset immunodeficiency syndrome.
  • Scientists have created a drug using eggs of a pig parasite to treat chronic debilitating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
  • Researchers from the Stanford University have collaborated to synthesize and study grid-like array of short pieces of a disease-associated protein on silicon chips to identify patients with a particularly severe form of autoimmune disease lupus.
  • According to a study blood type of a person can determine his/ chances of getting a disease.
  • Scientists say that the children born to older men are at a greater risk of genetic disorders.
  • According to a study thiabendazole a common antifungal drug decreases tumor growth and also a potential medicine in cancer therapy.
  • In a new study scientists said that a three year old can easily find whether you are whining or upset.
  • In a recent research scientists did some laboratory tests which showed that within five hours of application of extracts from a plant known as virgin’s mantle (medicinal tea) growth of cancer cells was arrested and they died within 24 hours.
  • According to some scientists chemicals in lipsticks, toothpastes and face washes might cause heart and muscle problems.
  • Researchers at University of Pennsylvania are using nanofibers to develop biomaterials.
  • Scientists have learned to harness power from bacteria eating virus.
  • According to a research aging heart cells can be rejuvenated by modified stem cell therapy.
  • According to a team of Israeli scientists smoking can prevent progress of degenerative disease (- Parkinson’s).
  • A national study done in Australia is attempting new ways for the treatment of melanoma. It will map all common gene mutations.
  • Researchers in Melbourne find key to rare diseases which cause birth defects like DiGeorge syndrome.
  • According to the scientists ovarian cancer patients should improve their lifestyle to improve their survival rates and quality of life.
  • Researchers have found that stones in gall bladder in teens are due their overweight problem.
  • In a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), the villagers of Amazon have antibodies to rabies which suggests that disease may not be 100% fatal.

Diseases & Disasters:

  •  Cholera epidemic spreads through coastal slums of West Africa. Contagious disease has killed hundreds of people.
  • Refinery explosion in Venezuela on Saturday killed 24 people and injured many.
  • Tropical Storm Isaac hits Haiti, killing 3 people. South Florida on alert.
  • Ebola outbreak in Congo related to contact with infected individuals and consumption of bushmeat.
  • Record spike in West Nile virus cases in U.S.
  • Rs. 1 billion uncertified medicine scam unearthed in Sindh. These uncertified medicines were not certified by the central or potential drug laboratories they were potential danger to lives of people.
  • Uncollected garbage on the streets of Metro Manila has concerned agencies as a potential source of outbreak of diseases.
  • Swine flu cases have been confirmed in Lucknow, India.
  • Floods in India and Pakistan have killed dozens of people.
  • Japan nuclear plant leakage caused mutation in butterflies though no such reports for humans.

Webcast: Uniting to Combat NTDs

Please tune in for a special webcast featuring Bill Gates, Margaret Chan, Stephen O’Brien, pharmaceutical industry CEOs and other partners on:

Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases
Ending the Neglect and Reaching 2020 Goals

Webcast will go live Monday, January 30, 6:00 a.m. EST at http://www.unitingtocombatntds.org.
An archived video will be available after the event for on-demand viewing.

Join a group of international partners for an event that demonstrates how innovative partnership can accelerate improvements in health and development for millions of people living in the world’s poorest countries.

Through a series of coordinated commitments, these partners aim to combat neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and drive progress toward the World Health Organization’s goals for control or elimination by 2020.

The event will feature:

· Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
· CEOs of Nine Leading Pharmaceutical Companies
· Bill Gates, Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
· Senior Government Officials from Tanzania, Mozambique, Brazil and Zanzibar
· Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, UK Department for International Development
· Dr. Bernard Pécoul, Executive Director, Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative
· Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez, Assistant Administrator for Global Health, US Agency for International Development
· Dr. Caroline Anstey, Managing Director, World Bank
· Moderated by: Riz Khan, Al Jazeera English