This piece originally appeared in Folha de S. Paulo in English and in Portuguese.
“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk together.” So goes an African proverb that defines the collaboration between the Brazilian Ministry of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently celebrated two scientific partnerships that harness Brazil’s spirit of innovation in the service of global health.
Fiocruz and the Gates Foundation announced a new initiative to develop a low-cost, high-quality vaccine to prevent measles and rubella for some of the world’s poorest countries. The effort builds on the success of Brazil’s National Immunization Program and marks the first time a Brazilian vaccine is being developed specifically for global markets.
The collaborations between the Gates Foundation and the Ministry of Health are the logical offspring of Brazil’s Unified Health System. One of the first countries to make access to health care a constitutional right, Brazil has been a global leader in providing life-saving vaccines to all children and HIV treatment to all citizens in need. Brazil’s system covers more than 145 million people, and at that scale, it provides a strong platform for delivering innovations that are truly transformative for Brazilians, with ripple effects for other countries.
The common thread between Brazil and the Gates Foundation is the quest for affordable, innovative solutions that will have a long-term impact on health, and that can be introduced at a large scale in Brazil and in other countries where ease of use is essential and high cost is a barrier. With the new measles rubella vaccine, for example, the goal is to increase the number of global suppliers for a vaccine that can prevent an estimated 158,000 deaths every year, mostly in children under five years of age.
With the Grand Challenges research program, the vision is even more ambitious, and the potential to save lives in Brazil and around the world is even greater. The projects that receive funding in the areas of health, agriculture and development cover a wide variety of themes, ranging from safer and more environmentally friendly latrines to high-tech measures to control dengue fever.
Built from bricks that decompose naturally in the environment, the new latrines would transform what would have been forever-contaminated land into fertilized soil, ingeniously and simultaneously targeting two urgent development challenges: the need for better sanitation and promotion of small-scale agriculture. If successful, these latrines could be deployed throughout rural Brazil – and in developing countries around the world.
On the high-tech end of the spectrum, scientists in Brazil and five other countries are examining a potential solution to dengue fever that would involve introducing a common bacterium into the aedes aegypti mosquito. The theory is that this would interrupt the transmission of dengue, curbing hundreds of thousands of infections in Brazil and millions worldwide.
The potential impact of these projects is the driving force behind our partnership. By uniting our ideas and expertise, we will be able to advance new, early-stage research. Innovation can be an important tool as we “walk together,” to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.