Friday, February 18, 2011

First Stop: NIH

Image courtesy of USAID
When I arrived in DC a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see many famous places for the first time: the White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and others. Which major attraction did I see first? The NIH campus.

Alright, it might not be every tourist’s top choice, but the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD is a place I’ve heard and read about for years. So when Heather asked me to attend a lecture there by Dr. Rajiv Shah, the current USAID (US Agency for International Development) administrator, I was more than happy to visit.

It turned out, however, that I wasn’t the only one having my “first time” on the NIH campus. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins introduced Shah and noted that this was the first time a sitting USAID administrator had addressed the NIH. It was a bit a surprising: two closely related – and physically close – government agencies never having that kind of interaction.

As Shah soon described, the bond between USAID and the NIH certainly has plenty of room to grow. He first brought up a few cases in which the NIH has already contributed to USAID work: An NIH-funded study called First Breath has led to the development of a program against newborn asphyxia. An NIH study that discovered circumcision can reduce HIV transmission has brought on a circumcision campaign in Swaziland. And NIH studies on antiretrovirals and gel microbicides have USAID looking further into those HIV prevention strategies.

There remain plenty of areas, however, where the NIH’s potential for discovery and development can yield great benefits for USAID. In the fight against malaria, for example, Shah said, “we must invent new solutions:” faster methods of diagnosis, safer insecticides, cheaper medicines, and – the biggest potential coup – a cheap, effective vaccine. The two agencies share many of the same targets – malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis – and by working together, they can shorten “the distance between bench and bush.”

It was Shah’s first address to the NIH, and he immediately gave both agencies plenty to think about in the years ahead as their efforts become more unified. “This collaboration is the most powerful building tool we have,” Shah said, adding that “When we have this massive engine focused […] it will be a huge win for the world.”

My hope now is that everyone involved in promoting health – whether health care providers, researchers, or their supporters – recognize that this “massive engine” should be interacting, working together, and, of course, visiting one another. The majority of people might not have the opportunity to visit the NIH, like I did, but together we can bring its discoveries and its benefits to their doorstep.

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