What can we achieve within our children’s lifetime?

Earlier this year, the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) stated its ambition to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy.”

While some quibbled over the unconventional structure of a limited liability company, many (including the author) were encouraged by the creation of the CZI, knowing that it has the right elements of risk-taking, innovation and audacity to make a positive global impact.

This week, the optimists were vindicated, when Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan outlined the first specific project of their Initiative, to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”

Chan and Zuckerberg stated three core goals toward which they will direct $3 billion of investment over the next decade:

  • Bring scientists and engineers together
  • Build tools and technology
  • Grow the movement to fund science

This emphasis on research and development is predicated on the belief that major scientific breakthroughs throughout history have been inspired by the creation of new tools that offer new perspectives, such as DNA sequencing, which is now changing the way we fight cancer and genetic disorders.

Much like the reaction to the initial CZI announcement, critics see the CZI as more of an ambitious “upstart” than a promising ‘startup’ with real potential for global human development. They say many other organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focus full-time on improving public health, and do so with a much larger budget (NIH spends 10x the CZI health budget every year) yet still see the dream of curing all diseases as just that — a distant dream.

This reminds me of the naysayers who laughed off Rotary’s intention to rid the world of polio in 1985. They said that a nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois could never have the expertise or staying power to make a serious impact on global health. Yet, today we’re 99.9% of the way there, after spearheading the most successful public health partnership in history, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) with the help of the World Health Organization, the CDC, UNICEF, and the Gates Foundation.

So, is this precedent enough to counter those who doubt we can cure, manage or prevent all diseases by the end of the century? I think it is, for two reasons.

The economics of eradication & the virtues of boldness

First, judging new public health initiatives by comparing the amount of initial investment is the wrong way round. We should look at the amount we will save both in human lives and healthcare costs as a result of these investments. For example, we know that a polio-free world will reap financial savings and reduced healthcare costs of up to US$50 billion through 2035. In fact, we’ve already saved $27 billion since the GPEI’s inception, and low-income countries account for 85% of the savings. Imagine the benefits of a world free of other devastating diseases, such as HIV or malaria.

Secondly, most transformative public health initiatives require an audacious vision to get off the ground, or beyond the boardroom. This was certainly the case with the GPEI, and I think the same applies to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. By stating a compelling vision for the future of disease prevention, the CZI will raise awareness and inspire others to take up the cause. As the economics of polio eradication prove, presenting the case for eradicating a disease often makes more economic sense than attempting to merely control it. To inspire long-term public engagement in the field of public health, it’s better to be bold and present a transformative vision, than to understate what is possible.

Global Health Requires Global Collaboration

However, ending diseases is more than the sum of innovation through scientific research. Once an effective cure for a disease is discovered (particularly a vaccine for an infectious disease) it needs to transcend the world of the laboratory, and reach communities across the globe, often in remote areas or conflict zones. This requires dedicated health professionals and volunteers who live and work in these communities; who toil day in, day out, to ensure all children are protected. Disease eradication is also a social, cultural and logistical challenge, and this is where the operational experience and reach of more established nonprofits will help.

So the framework for effective partnerships must be built into the CZI’s global health plans as they take shape. Zuckerberg acknowledged this when he observed that partnerships are “more effective for the mission than trying to lead efforts ourselves.”

The success of the polio eradication effort has taught us that initial doubts should not detract from the bold and inspiring entrance of a new player in the field of human development. We expected ambition from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and now it’s coming to life.

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