Four key global health wins from the World Health Assembly

Young mother with a baby swaddled on her back.

The health of mothers and their young children took center stage at last week’s World Health Assembly. Photo: PATH/Deborah Atherly.

Guest contributor Heather Ignatius is senior policy and advocacy officer at PATH.

Portrait of Heather Ignatius.

Heather Ignatius. Photo: PATH/Doug Palm.

The global health community is buzzing about the 67th World Health Assembly (WHA), which took place in Geneva last week. The WHA is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is composed of health ministers from 194 member countries. Here are four messages we heard loud and clear at this year’s WHA:

“Health has an obligatory place on any post-2015 development agenda.” —Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO

Over the past year, policymakers have heatedly debated which development goals to put in place after the Millennium Development Goals reach their 2015 target date. At the assembly, delegates approved a resolution that prioritizes several health topics for inclusion in the post-2015 development agenda. They include newborn health, noncommunicable diseases, mental health, neglected tropical diseases, and completion of the existing Millennium Development Goals that address HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria; child health; and maternal health. Continue reading »

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Why do girls need sanitary pads to stay in school?

Three nozzles above three sanitary pads emit red fluid.

If girls had access to sanitary pads, would they be more likely to stay in school? Here, we test pads in PATH’s product development shop. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

Nancy Muller is continually impressed by the grace and ingenuity of girls dealing with their menstrual periods. “Every month, all around the world,” she says, “there are girls who don’t know what’s happening when they suddenly get their menstrual period, who face shame and embarrassment and taboos around the subject, and on top of all that, who don’t have easily available means to absorb the blood.”

Menstruation, says Nancy, program officer with our Technology Solutions program, is a complex subject with repercussions for public health, global development, women’s empowerment, and beyond. To commemorate the first global Menstrual Hygiene Day May 28, we asked Nancy to help us understand the issues by answering one seemingly simple question:

Why do girls need sanitary pads to stay in school?

Nancy Muller: You start to see a real difference in rates of school attendance for boys and girls as they move from primary school to secondary school. Rates for girls can be 8 to 10 percent lower than for boys. There are a lot of reasons for this. If there’s a need for help in the home, for example, often a girl may be held back.

Nancy explains why girls need more options for menstrual hygiene and offers some alternatives in this video from Ignite Seattle.

Now, if a girl doesn’t have access to sanitary pads or a safe and clean place at school to change them, that becomes another reason to keep her home. She starts missing a few days every month, she falls behind, and she may eventually drop out. In fact, some small studies in Ghana and Uganda found that if you provide a girl with underwear and sanitary pads, her chances of staying in school are 30 to 50 percent higher.

Keeping girls in school is important to health and development—not only for the girls but for their communities and countries. When girls stay in school, they are less likely to get HIV infection, wages go up, teenage pregnancy rates go down, and the children they have are healthier. You educate a girl and you change the world.

Five colorful sanitary pads, one with absorbant substance that looks like cotton balls pulled out.

Early examples of our work to develop hybrid sanitary pads. Photo: PATH.

So, why  not make sanitary pads more widely available? There are challenges, and one of the biggest is the ongoing cost. Another is that most sanitary pads are disposable. In countries that don’t have a good sanitation or waste disposal system, that can be big problem.

At PATH, we’re exploring potential solutions that are appropriate and affordable. For example, we’ve been looking at ways to make a hybrid reusable pad less expensive, easier to wash, and quicker to dry. Maybe we could even package those with a booklet so girls could learn what’s happening when they start to menstruate.

And another option that I’m excited about right now is the menstrual cup. These cups catch blood and can last for a decade. And they can be used for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch—a full school day. Think of what that could mean to a girl!

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Gugu Xaba: making the most of a child’s first 1,000 days

Close-up of a newborn wrapped in a red blanket.

The first 1,000 days of life determine a child’s health and development, says Gugu Xaba. She leads our Window of Opportunity project to make sure kids get the best start. Photo: PATH.

Early in Gugu Xaba’s career, when she was still a community health nurse, she realized the difference she could make in the lives of her fellow South Africans. It was the early 1990s, and HIV was devastating people’s lives. Treatment was not yet available, and a solution seemed impossible.

Portrait of Gugu Xaba.

Gugu Xaba. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

“I remember well the amount of counseling we had to do with people who were infected,” says Gugu, who now works with PATH’s program in South Africa. “The need to give hope when there was nothing.”

She knew she had succeeded when she saw a change in people’s eyes. “They came in with eyes that were despairing, but their eyes were calm when they left. They could see the reason to go on in life.”

A baby named Bokang

Eventually, the impossible became possible. Thanks to the efforts of the South African government and many organizations, including PATH, South Africans today are receiving treatment and living longer.

Gugu’s career took a turn, too. She earned a master’s degree in public health and worked at institutions including South Africa’s Department of Health, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and the US Centers for Disease Control. In 2012, she came to PATH to lead our Window of Opportunity project, which focuses on improving the health of children under the age of two.

These children often face dire health risks. South Africa has one of the highest rates of newborn mortality in the world—43,000 infants die every year. More than half of them are HIV-positive or exposed to HIV.

And 3.7 million children have been orphaned, including a little boy called Baby Bokang.

Watch this video to learn more about PATH’s Window of Opportunity project in South Africa.

Opening windows of opportunity

Both of Bokang’s parents were HIV-positive. Within a month of his birth, Bokang was abandoned by his mother, and his father died of HIV-related infections. He, too, is HIV-positive.

To help children like Bokang, the Window of Opportunity project is strengthening care over the course of the first 1,000 days of life—from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. Continue reading »

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Sophy Mabasa: a passionate advocate for the power of breast milk

Four adults and a toddler girl smile next to a decorated birthday cake.

Sophy Mabasa’s training in children’s nutrition took on new meaning for her when she had a family of her own. Photo: Sophy Mabasa

Sophy Mabasa

Sophy Mabasa. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

There is school learning, and then there is learning from life. For PATH’s Sophy Mabasa, her degree in clinical nutrition came alive when she had her son, Rifumo.

“I used what I learned—getting regular antenatal care, exclusively breastfeeding Rifumo for six months, immunization—and it worked,” she says. “He was so healthy. It was amazing to see theory in practice.”

The steps Sophy took can be lifesaving, yet, as she knows too well, mothers and babies in South Africa, where she lives and works, miss out on them every day.

Dreaming big

“I grew up in Limpopo, which is one of the poorest provinces in South Africa,” says Sophy. “I was fortunate. I attended some of the best schools in the province, which helped me to dream big—to graduate from university and pursue a career that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Sophy graduated as the top student in her program just after Nelson Mandela became president. The post-apartheid government was introducing new health programs for millions of underserved people. Sophy became an assistant director in nutrition for South Africa’s National Department of Health, an experience that deepened her commitment to advocating for breastfeeding.

“When I see children dying of malnutrition or HIV and I know that an intervention like breastfeeding can increase their chances of survival,” she says, “it really pushes me to do more.”

Sophy speaking to breakfast audience.

Sophy spoke at PATH’s Breakfast For Global Health event, telling an audience of PATH supporters in Bellevue, Washington, about her work as a specialist in maternal and child nutrition in South Africa. Photo: PATH.

Stop the transmission

South Africa has some of the highest rates of infant and maternal deaths in the world. HIV plays a big role—in some areas, one-third of pregnant women are HIV-positive. More than half of children who die have been exposed to HIV.

“Most South Africans, including myself, know someone who has lost a baby,” says Sophy. “Many know a woman who died in childbirth. Yet almost all of these deaths are preventable.”

Through her work at PATH, Sophy encourages women to practice what she did with Rifumo: exclusively breastfeed for six months to give infants the nutrients and immune support found only in breast milk. “Even if the mother is HIV-positive,” she explains, “breastfeeding actually reduces the risk of HIV transmission.”

Sophy is also helping to guide the implementation of human milk banks, which collect donor breast milk for vulnerable babies who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

Best for babies

There’s a story that Sophy shares that exemplifies the challenges she sees in South Africa and the potential. It’s the story of a baby named Sipho, whose mother was HIV-positive.

“Like many women in South Africa, Sipho’s mom didn’t attend the clinic regularly when she was pregnant. She had anemia, which wasn’t diagnosed until too late. As a result, she bled too much when she was giving birth to Sipho, and she died.

“Sipho was not only an orphan, he was premature, and he had been exposed to HIV. He desperately needed breast milk.”

Fortunately for Sipho, he was in a hospital with a human milk bank. But very few hospitals in South Africa can afford the high-tech pasteurizers that ensure donated milk is free of HIV and other pathogens.

Affordable and safe

Inspired by survivors like Sipho, PATH collaborated with the University of Washington and the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa to develop an innovative, low-cost pasteurization monitoring system that uses a mobile phone application.

The app guides health workers through the process of heating donated milk over a burner and monitors the temperature to make sure the milk is heated just right—so no bacteria or viruses are left and no nutrients are destroyed. The system, called FoneAstra, was launched in four hospitals in South Africa and will soon be expanded to more.

“Sipho is HIV-free and doing well. He just started grade 1,” says Sophy. “He has been given the chance to achieve his potential and that is what we want for all of South Africa’s children.”


A prototype of the FoneAstra device for monitoring the temperature of breast milk using a smartphone. Photo: PATH/Steffanie Chritz.

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How 4 mothers are making life better for children

Because PATH focuses on saving lives and improving health, especially among women and children, we meet many remarkable mothers in the course of our work. No matter their location or circumstances, they share one trait: they are all working to provide a healthy life for the children in their communities.

To celebrate Mother’s Day in the United States, we honor four of these women, and their tenacious and loving dedication to making life better for children.

Savita Rai: adapting tradition to give babies a better chance

Woman in a yellow and pink sari holding a toddler kneels in a dirt yard, before a clothesline.

Savita Rai and her grandson, Aakash. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

In the Indian village of Amkoil, mothers-in-law like Savita Rai make the decisions in the house, such as whether a daughter-in-law will give birth in a health center and how she will care for her baby. When her daughter-in-law was pregnant, Savita attended a mother’s group where PATH-mentored teachers provided lifesaving information on childbirth and care. When the time came, she adapted her practices and made sure her grandson was born in a health center. “I’ve learned how to take care of the mother and child,” she says. “Now I’m not so worried about my daughters-in-law or my grandchildren.”

Jane Wamalwa: teaching others about deadly diarrhea

Woman in a blue t-shirt looks directly at the camera. Trees in the background.

Jane Wamalwa, who lost three children to diarrhea, helps other mothers understand how to help keep their children safe. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Jane Wamalwa lost three young children to an illness that is both deadly and easily preventable: diarrheal disease. Jane, and other women in her rural Kenya community, knew little about what caused the illness and less about how to stop it. Selected by village leaders and trained by PATH, Jane is now a community health worker taking the fight against diarrhea door to door in her community. Her deeply personal understanding of the disease’s consequences makes her a powerful ambassador for the tools and techniques that can save children’s lives. Continue reading »

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10 years of inspiring stories, and breakfast

Guest contributor Karina Collins is senior events coordinator at PATH.

Young girl holding a cotton ball over an injection site on her upper arm.

Oceane, whose story we told at the 2011 Breakfast for Global Health, received a vaccine that will protect her against a devastating infection of the brain, meningitis A. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

This year, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Breakfast for Global Health, PATH’s annual fundraising event. Since the first Breakfast, the event has grown from a group of 100 supporters gathered in our conference room to an event with more than 1,000 attendees in two locations. This week, for the first time we’re having Breakfast in the city of Bellevue, on the east side of the Puget Sound region, as well as in our headquarters city of Seattle.

Graphic with text reading, "Breakfast for Global Health 2014 lead sponsors." Logo of McKinstry appears beneath the heading "visionary." Logos of Amazon, JP Morgan Chase, and Microsoft appear below the heading "partners."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

In ten years, we’ve told touching stories to thousands of people and raised millions of dollars to catalyze PATH projects. And even though the event has grown and changed, our purpose has always been the same: to come together and share our common belief that innovation can change the world and that there is a role for each of us in this work.

Behind the scenes at Breakfast

I start planning each Breakfast eight months in advance, and by the time you sign in for the event, I’ve seen your name on hundreds of spreadsheets and could probably tell you your email address off the top of my head. (Don’t worry. I won’t, because that would be weird.) I’ve made sure our featured speaker has arrived safely from another corner of the world. I’ve fact checked, proofread, ironed, folded, printed, and arranged hundreds of details all so you can experience and support PATH. Continue reading »

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JE vaccine: the affordable answer to Asia’s “brain fever”

A schoolgirl sits in a white plastic chair as a health worker administers vaccine in the girl's arm.

Photo: PATH/Aaron Joel Santos.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. To mark World Immunization Week, we’re profiling vaccine projects in our extensive portfolio that aim to protect children from these illnesses. Today, we look at vaccine against Japanese encephalitis, the first vaccine manufactured in China to receive World Health Organization prequalification.

Graphic with text reading, "International Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

Often called “brain fever,” Japanese encephalitis (JE) begins like the flu but quickly progresses to a brain infection that kills nearly one in three people with the virus. Among its survivors, up to half suffer permanent neurological damage, such as paralysis, recurrent seizures, or the inability to speak.

The disease mainly strikes children in poor, rural communities in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, where four billion people live at risk of JE. Up to 70,000 cases are reported annually. The fate of those who become infected is a guessing game—there is no treatment for JE. The only viable solution is prevention through vaccination.

The vaccine

In October 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave its critical stamp of approval to an affordable JE vaccine to protect children from the virus. Through an innovative partnership with China’s Chengdu Institute of Biological Products (CDIPB), PATH helped to scale up the vaccine—which had been used successfully to protect more than 200 million of China’s children—and prepare it for WHO approval so that it could reach the roughly two dozen countries at risk of JE. Continue reading »

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Rotavirus: preventing killer diarrhea

A crying baby in its mother's arms is given a dose of oral vaccine.

After her children struggled with diarrheal disease, Teresa was determined to get one-month-old Vusi vaccinated as soon as she heard about the availability of rotavirus vaccine. Photo: PATH/Gareth Bentley.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. To mark World Immunization Week, we’re profiling vaccine projects in our extensive portfolio that aim to protect children from these illnesses. Today, we take a look at a vaccine to protect children from the most common cause of deadly diarrhea.

Graphic with text reading, "International Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

Rotavirus is as common as it is deadly. Nearly every child, rich or poor, is at risk of rotavirus infection, the most common cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea. But 95 percent of rotavirus-related deaths in young children happen in low-income countries in Africa and Asia, where access to lifesaving care can be limited or unavailable. Vaccination is the best way to prevent rotavirus, which is highly contagious and resistant to traditional diarrhea prevention strategies like hand-washing and ensuring a clean water supply.

The vaccines

ROTAVAC® is a new vaccine awaiting licensure in India that could transform the fight against rotavirus. At a cost of just $1 per dose, ROTAVAC will protect children at a fraction of the price of currently available rotavirus vaccines. PATH was part of a cross-sector partnership led by the government of India that developed the vaccine, providing technical support on pivotal clinical trials and manufacturing issues. PATH also is working with manufacturers in China, India, and the United States to advance other promising rotavirus vaccine candidates, some of which are now in clinical trials. Continue reading »

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Pneumonia: smart vaccines to fight the number one child killer

Two young children, one with her arm around the other.

Pneumonia kills more young children than any other disease—about 1 million every year. Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.

Guest contributor Laura Anderson is an editor at PATH.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. To mark World Immunization Week, we’re profiling vaccine projects in our extensive portfolio that aim to protect children from these illnesses. Today, we look at the need for a new kind of vaccine against pneumonia. 

Graphic with text reading, "International Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

Pneumonia kills more children worldwide than any other disease. Last year, it took the lives of more than a million children—3,000 every day—primarily in the world’s poorest countries.

Poor access to sanitation and safe drinking water, a lack of health care, and inadequate diagnostic tools all contribute to pneumonia’s toll. Often, parents don’t recognize children’s symptoms in time, and when they do, lifesaving care may be miles—or even days—from their homes.

Meeting these challenges requires a combination of approaches. For more than ten years, vaccines have been a particularly powerful ally. Last year, immunization against the leading cause of pneumonia, the pneumococcus bacterium, saved thousands of lives in more than 100 countries. Yet existing vaccines are complicated to manufacture, too expensive for many low-resource countries, and don’t offer complete protection against disease. To beat pneumonia, we need to keep improving our tools. Continue reading »

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Malaria: is vaccine against a parasite possible?

Five smiling mothers hold their young children on their laps while health workers look on.

These children in Tanzania are among more than 15,000 African children participating in a phase 3 trial of RTS,S, the most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate. Photo: PATH/David Poland.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. To mark World Immunization Week, we’re profiling vaccine projects in our extensive portfolio that aim to protect children from these illnesses. Today, World Malaria Day, we look at progress toward a vaccine that promises to be the first to provide humans with protection from a parasite.

Graphic with text reading, "World Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

How do you stop a complex and adaptable killer that has survived for millennia?

Malaria is responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 people each year, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. And every year, it sickens some 200 million others. While drugs and insecticides save millions of lives, the mosquito-borne malaria parasite is developing resistance to both. A safe, effective, and affordable malaria vaccine could close the gap in interventions.

The vaccine

A vaccine that protects people from a human parasite has never been developed before, and until recently, many people thought it was impossible. But PATH, through our Malaria Vaccine Initiative, is working with many partners to accomplish an important goal of the malaria community: develop a first-generation vaccine that cuts the number of episodes of malaria in young children by about half, with protection lasting for more than one year. Continue reading »

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