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Melinda French Gates - Global Health Council, 28th Annual Conference

May 31, 2001
Remarks by Melinda French Gates, co-chair

I'd like to begin by thanking all the people who helped bring us together tonight, starting with my co-chairs. Thanks to Graca Machel, who has done so much for children's rights through her work in Mozambique, South Africa and around the world. Thanks to Dr. Allen Rosenfield, who has devoted his life to women's reproductive health.

Thanks to Secretary-General Kofi Annan for his wise words and strong leadership. Thanks to everyone at the Global Health Council, including the volunteers who pitched in tonight, who embody the community spirit that unites all of us working in global health.

Thanks to whoever wrote the words "black tie attire is not required" in tonight's program.

A lot of you have thanked me over the last couple of days for what the Gates Foundation is doing. Let me set the record straight. I want to thank you for all that you are doing for children around the world.

I've been looking forward to tonight, not just to meet the winners of the various awards, but also to voice my conviction that nothing matters more to the future of our world than the well being of women and children.

If you want healthy economies, you need healthy families. If you want peaceful societies, you need peaceful communities. If you want a meaningful standard of human rights, then you have to uphold women's rights and children's rights.

Here in Washington, in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped make human rights more concrete when he spelled out the four freedoms that unified Americans at a dark moment in our history:

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Worship
  • Freedom from Want
  • and Freedom from Fear

These freedoms should not stop at any border; nor should they stop at the number four.

It's time to insist that freedom from easily preventable disease is a basic human right. A fifth freedom, more important than the others, because it precedes them, and makes them possible. We might call it simply: the Freedom to Grow Up.

The Gates Foundation was created in 1994. Seven years is not so long by some measures. It's a lifetime by others. Most Americans, following the rise of the stock market, think these last seven years were years of unimpeded progress. All of you know otherwise. It's true that in the developed world, new technology has changed peoples' lives forever. It certainly has changed mine!

Thanks to computers, the Internet, biotechnology and DNA research, we now think very differently about the basic organization of life. But whenever I hear about how great we're doing, I know that it's time for a reality check:

  • Only about 7% of the world's population is online.
  • Half the world's people have never made a phone call, much less sent a fax or an email.
  • Half live on less than $2 a day.
  • They overwhelmingly lack sanitation and clean water.
  • Almost a billion adults cannot read.

While the Information Age has changed many of our lives, it has not changed most lives at all. And our new knowledge of life's inner workings has done too little to save lives in the developing world.

People often ask my husband and me why we decided to make global health the top priority of our foundation. Our decision is rooted in a belief all of you embody in your daily work: The loss of a child in one place on the planet, is no less tragic than the loss of a child in another.

It is unacceptable that a plane crash is considered worldwide news, while the fact that fifty times as many people die from preventable disease the same day, and every day, is never mentioned.

It is unacceptable than any child of the 21st century -- let alone three million -- die each year because we fail to get them the vaccines they need. If we can make a difference, then we have to make a difference.

There's a nice quote in our program: "when it comes to global health, there is no them, there is only us." The last decade has shown the many ways we connect with each other. We must never forget that connection brings responsibility.

It reminds me of something Nelson Mandela wrote to the people of South Africa in 1985, when he was still in jail on Robben Island: "your freedom and mine can not be separated."

It doesn't take a scientist to know that our health, like our freedom, is ultimately indivisible. I think all of us instinctively feel that. And more and more of us feel that freedom and human rights are only platitudes, if we can't do more to help people around the world attain a basic level of health that makes those values worth cherishing.

As Bill and I began to explore where we could make the greatest impact with our resources, we were stunned to learn how many lives are being saved – and how many more could be saved – by providing access to simple interventions such as vaccines.

Why should there be a fifteen-year lag between when a vaccine is available in the West, and when it is available in developing countries? The answer is simple – there shouldn't be. If a Hepatitis B vaccine is available in the United States, it should be available everywhere.

When an AIDS vaccine is developed, it must be available everywhere. We've met a lot of health professionals since the Foundation started, and nothing has inspired our commitment more than the work all of you do on the front lines. Day after day, year after year, you are leading the fight against disease and poverty. You have the most important job in the world.

I was deeply moved during a recent trip to India, as I spoke with a young doctor at an AIDS hospice. This doctor told me, how in this home, they virtually bring people back to life, by quote: "the simple act of treating them by our hearts."

The fight against AIDS is going to take all of our hearts, and minds, and political will. As well as a generous sharing of our resources. But we can, and we must, stop this terrible disease.

Secretary-General Annan has rightly said that AIDS is "the world's biggest public health challenge" and "in some countries the biggest single obstacle to development." In Africa, what should have been a decade of liberation – Nelson Mandela's decade – was instead something far less euphoric. An entire generation has been lost to AIDS.

And the question before us today is whether a decade from now, we will have tens of millions, or hundreds of millions infected. This is not merely an African problem. In the Caribbean, in Eastern Europe and Russia, and especially in India, there are signs that AIDS is spreading. And spreading on a massive scale.

Yes, certain countries have shown leadership, among them Uganda, Senegal, and Thailand. But no one should mistake a stalemate for a victory; especially when there is so much more we have to do with both treatment and prevention.

I'm encouraged that the U.S. government is committed to this fight, and that Secretary Powell, who has just returned from Africa, has emphasized that global health is essential to global stability.

I strongly support Secretary-General Annan's Call to Action, and urge the United States government and other donor nations to commit unprecedented resources to the fight against AIDS.

In a few weeks, nations will gather at the UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS. The world can stop AIDS, but only if wealthy countries, starting with the United States, increase spending on AIDS in a dramatic way.

This evening we've celebrated the lives and work of many unsung heroes. And that is precisely idea behind the Gates Award for Global Health, to bring overdue recognition to the heroic people and institutions that have been fighting this fight for so long.

The Gates Award for Global Health was created last December, providing a million dollars to an organization that has made a major and lasting contribution to global health.

We asked for it when we wrote: "nominations may be submitted by anyone from any country." And we got it. Nominations came in from every continent, for organizations large and small, new and old, famous and obscure. You've never seen a more impressive list.

The decision was difficult, as you can imagine. So many of you have done such good work. With this Award, we are recognizing how much good science happens on the front lines, where the need is greatest. And we're celebrating an organization that has swiftly moved from one problem to another, helping sufferers and scientists with equal selflessness.

I'm proud to present the first Gates Award for Global Health to the Centre for Health and Population Research in Bangladesh. The Centre has been in existence since 1960. Many of you know it as ICDDR,B – the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh.

Before I speak about the Centre, let's take a moment to watch it in action. As you just saw, the Centre's most famous achievement was their pioneering work in the development and dissemination of Oral Rehydration Solution, a balance of sodium and glucose that is estimated to save the lives of three million children each year. Until ORS, one of the greatest killers in Bangladesh and across the developing world was diarrhea.

In fact, most Americans don't know that diarrhea was a terrible killer during our own history. Walt Whitman, who served here in Washington as a nurse during the war, said the Civil War was "about ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory."

The simplicity of ORS should never obscure its brilliance or its impact. The Centre has also been in the forefront of the fight against cholera. As you heard in the video, the Centre has become an important resource for family planning, and nutritional information. And of course, they treat people – 120,000 a year – more than 300 a day – 80% of them under five.

In both the Dhaka hospital and in Matlab, hours away by land and water, children are brought in all day long, more dead than alive. They often leave the same day, with a new lease on life. We may understand the science behind that, but it doesn't make it any less of a miracle.

Best of all, the Centre's remarkable trainees are drawn from around the world, and they take their lessons back to their countries. More than 20,000 trainees have come from and returned to 78 countries. Each is an emissary of hope. Would all those in our audience who have trained at the Centre please stand so that we can recognize you.

The great Nobel Laureate and poet, Rabindranath Tagore, once wrote a poem that goes to the heart of the Centre's work. It embodies what all of us are trying to do for the world's children, and I'd like to read a portion that verse tonight:

You have burst the bond of darkness

Your are tiny, but are not little

For all the lights in the world are your kin

It gives me great pleasure to present the first ever Gates Award for Global Health to Dr. David Sack, Director of the Centre for Health and Population Research in Bangladesh, and Professor Marian Jacobs, Board Chair for the Centre.

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