Thanks to scientific and medical progress, the average life expectancy of a person in North America is 80 years and increasing. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the average lifespan is half that figure, and dropping. Technology is often said to have made the world a much smaller place, so how can those of us fortunate enough to be in the developed world help close that shocking life expectancy gap? That question, according to the University of Toronto’s Peter Singer, is “the mother of all ethical challenges.”
Singer, a professor of medicine and an internationally-renowned expert on bioethics, returned Wednesday to the University of Chicago, the school where he studied medical ethics 22 years ago. And boy did we put him to work, asking him to deliver the opening speeches for two separate but related launches: this year’s MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics seminar series, and the school’s new Global Health Initiative. In both lectures, Singer drew from vast experience in facilitating efforts to improve health in Africa, India, China and other areas of the developing world, offering valuable advice for what doctors, scientists, and universities could do to help such efforts.
It’s nice to think that simply sending doctors and the fruits of scientific research to needy countries would solve these problems, but as Singer explained, there are several obstacles to merely hoping public health will spread around the globe by osmosis. Singer showed this Nature Review Immunology figure from 2002, which illustrates how developing countries lag behind in vaccinations given to children despite the development of vaccines for more diseases. Lack of scientific discovery relevant to the developing world, ethical and social barriers and a “brain drain” of scientific talent from Africa and Asia have all contributed to these inequalities, Singer said.
But Singer also gave reasons for optimism. In 2003, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (for which Singer serves as an advisor), issued their Grand Challenges in Global Health, funding vaccine research and efforts to limit diseases spread by insects – scientific questions more pressing to to poor countries. Six years later, those projects are already bearing fruit, such as the effort to infuse staple crops of poor populations with nutrients, the creation of genetically modified mosquitos that don’t spread malaria or the combination of several vaccines into a single injection.
Still, putting those advances into motion will require more than just science, Singer said. The ethical concerns of communities must be addressed by scientists, partnerships between government agencies and private companies should be explored, and the scientific communities within developing countries must be nurtured and supported.
“I think the simplest thing that can be done is to really engage scientists in the developing world, especially in Africa,” Singer said. “It’s only when a society has its own domestic science, and the companies and commercialization which that science needs, that a society really values that science. The ultimate place in the path from lab to village, in my view, is when the lab is in the village. Because that’s the point at which we’re not going to have the divide between the developing and the developed world.”
Educational institutions can also help these efforts, Singer said, “unleashing the power of discovery and innovation” to be found on a campus like the University of Chicago.
“This isn’t about Habitat for Humanity, it’s not about going to build houses in rural settings. It’s about taking the skills you have – in PCR, in human legal rights instruments, in other skills – and working with colleagues in developing countries to apply those skills,” Singer said. “This is about knowledge, and the people who share it.”
An inspiring message for the launch of the Global Health Initiative, founded by blog favorite Funmi Olopade as a way to facilitate international collaborations between the University of Chicago and others. You can read about some of the GHI’s initial projects here, such as staffing emergency rooms in Liberia and studying the health effects of arsenic-contaminated groundwater in Bangladesh. We’ll be covering more of those efforts, as the Global Health Initiative follows Singer’s mission statement: “great universities tackle great global challenges.”