India should help the world prepare for current and emerging health challenges | analysis | Hindustan Times
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India should help the world prepare for current and emerging health challenges

As the country’s scientific community continues to grow, there is an opportunity for India to assume enhanced leadership in addressing contemporary health threats

analysis Updated: Aug 28, 2016 19:59 IST
A sanitation worker cleans the alleyways of South Beach, sucking up still waters and debris with a mobile vacuum as part of Florida's Zika clean-up.
A sanitation worker cleans the alleyways of South Beach, sucking up still waters and debris with a mobile vacuum as part of Florida's Zika clean-up. (AP)

The ongoing Zika crisis is the latest example of an epidemic that has spread to various parts of the world in a short period of time, causing widespread fear and panic. Other outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS and HIV have wreaked havoc across countries in the past. More than 35 years after the discovery of HIV, the disease has infected over 80 million people worldwide and killed nearly half of them. In 2015 alone, more than one million died and more than two million were newly infected.

The interplay between population growth, poverty and overburdened or underdeveloped health care systems, globalisation, environmental degradation, and ever-increasing human travel across the globe has only increased the volatility and frequency of such outbreaks. It is therefore critical to evaluate the successes and failures of past responses, and ensure that we are better prepared to face outbreaks of infectious disease in the future.

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The experience of Zika, Ebola and HIV has taught us important lessons. We will not succeed in creating an effective global response unless we develop critical public health capabilities in the countries and communities most affected by such diseases. In addition, we need a sustained approach combining biomedical, behavioural and structural interventions to propel innovation in developing prevention and treatment tools that are suitable for global adoption.

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A great example of such a multi-sectoral approach is the recent Ebola vaccine advancement to late-stage clinical trials that would not have been possible without the close relationship between government and public sector partners, international organisations, NGOs and industry. In HIV, global access to life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs was made possible by aligning scientific innovation with the ability of Indian pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce large quantities of ARVs at affordable prices for a broader roll-out in Sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Likewise, Indian manufacturers are producing large quantities of affordable childhood vaccines that are saving lives in low- and middle-income countries, including many in Africa.

We have learned that science works best in teams and through collaboration, especially among partners with similar cultural environments and epidemiological challenges. South-South collaborations are, therefore, an indispensable tool for advancing scientific capabilities in the global South.

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As an economy in transition, India has much to offer in this regard. A quarter of new health products in the last 15 years targeting improved management of neglected diseases have emerged from India. The country has led one of the most successful polio eradication programmes, developed numerous centres of global excellence in biomedical research and clinical development, and established itself as a hotbed for low-cost pharmaceutical manufacturing. Its Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council is poised to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship in biomedicine, and accelerate lab-to-market time for new products.

As the country’s scientific community continues to grow, there is an opportunity for India to assume enhanced leadership in addressing contemporary health threats.

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Recent efforts towards expanding collaborative initiatives with African nations in the health sciences are a welcome step in this regard, and are expected to play an important role in propelling South-South scientific alliances towards achieving regional and local health and development goals, and advancing global health equity. These partnerships will also catalyse and accelerate the research and development of new tools to better prepare the world for current and emerging global health challenges.

Mark Feinberg is president and chief executive officer, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative

The views expressed are personal