My 12 Minutes Speaking in the House of Commons

Guest blog by Gavin Yamey, San Francisco Lead, Evidence to Policy initiative (E2Pi), Global Health Group, University of California San Francisco.

PLoS Medicine recently published an editorial about the rise of “malaria activism,” and particularly the need for a new wave of advocacy to raise awareness about the crisis of malaria drug stock-outs in Africa. I did the background reporting and interviews for the piece in Kenya during my 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation Mini-Fellowship in Global Health Reporting. The piece caught the attention of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases (APPMG), and they kindly invited me to talk to the group at their Tuesday 26th January 2010 meeting in the House of Commons in London. The theme of the meeting was, “Are we delivering effective treatments to malaria patients?”

It isn’t every day that you get an invite from your elected representatives to come and give a presentation inside a truly beautiful, historic, and iconic building. It was an exciting opportunity to play a very small part in shaping the UK parliamentary debate on the ongoing global malaria crisis and the political opportunities for supporting malaria control.

The occasion called for a haircut and a new suit. It may seem a bit frivolous to mention fashion and malaria in the same breath – but that link is actually one of the cornerstones of the high profile advocacy work by Malaria No More UK . They’re one of the charities I mentioned in my talk, and their key strategy is to involve fashion and sports icons in raising awareness and money (Victoria Beckham recently wore a specially commissioned piece of jewellery, a silver mosquito ring, that sold out instantly, raising cash to buy insecticide-treated bed nets and other control tools).

The group’s coordinator, Susan Dykes, met me and one of the other speakers, Paul Newton, at the St Stephen’s Gate to usher us quickly through security, get us a cup of House of Commons tea (I was delighted to see that it was Fair Trade), and brief us on what to expect. Paul lives and works in Lao, as the Director of the Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration, and has been a regular PLoS Medicine author. Then it was through the gigantic entry hall and up the stone stairs to the committee room, where the parliamentarians were gathered—together with the two other speakers, Cally Roper (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Hans Rietveld (Director, Global Access and Marketing, Novartis) and a packed room of malaria experts and public health students (mostly from the London School of Hygiene Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London).
The APPMG is chaired by Stephen O’Brien, shadow health minister. Many malaria experts tell me they have been very impressed with his advocacy for malaria control. In the current economic climate, I can’t imagine that it’s an easy task to persuade the British public to care about a disease of poverty in distant lands, yet through his work as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Malaria Consortium (one of the NGOs that hosted me during my fellowship) and of the APPMG, he has helped to maintain British commitment to malaria control. It’s good to know that if the Conservative party prevail at the next UK General election,  there should be some high level political commitment to global health.

Stephen ran a lively, tightly chaired meeting (each of us had just 12 minutes for our presentations). Paul kicked off with an alarming talk about fake and sub-standard artesunate. The topic of fake drugs, he said, has been a “Cinderella subject in health research,” despite the fact that distribution and treatment with fake and sub-standard medicines result in major morbidity and mortality, economic losses, loss of faith in genuine medicines, and drug resistance.
Cally discussed the value of mapping such malaria drug resistance. It’s deeply worrying that artesunate resistance has now been documented on the Thai/Cambodia border, and Cally discussed strategies that could be adopted to contain the spread of such resistance to Africa. Hans discussed Novartis’s work in malaria (the company manufactures artemisinin-based combination therapy, a cornerstone of malaria control in Africa). He also gave his views on some of the opportunities for improving the global response to malaria (such as greater political support and improved ACT procurement practices and inventory management). I was the final speaker, and I discussed the power of malaria activism and advocacy in highlighting failures and deficiencies in malaria control. A large focus of my talk was on ACT stock-outs and how these could be prevented. The APPMG will be posting the talks to its website shortly, and in the mean time I’d also be happy to send anyone interested a PDF of my slides (please e-mail YameyG@globalhealth.ucsf.edu).

Competing interests: E2Pi is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of malaria control. The Global Health Group at UCSF is directed by Sir Richard Feachem, founding Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. GY is a former Senior Editor at PLoS Medicine.

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