GE starts $3bn initiative to improve access to healthcare

In May General Electric announced that it is embarking on a six-year programme to innovate its business and product technology in a major initiative to help correct the inequalities in access to healthcare around the world – a move that the company says could see 100 million more people gaining access to healthcare services and technology each year.

The company said it will commit US$2 billion of financing and $1 billion in related GE technology and content to drive healthcare information technology and health in rural and underserved areas.

GE refers to the initiative as ‘healthymagination’, which it says is founded on its global commitments of reducing costs, improving quality and expanding access for millions of people.

Healthymagination will draw on capabilities from across GE, including GE Healthcare, GE Capital, GE Water, NBC Universal, the GE Global Research Center as well as the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of GE.

“Healthcare is an important industry that is challenged by rising costs, inequality of access and persistent quality issues,” Jeff Immelt, GE Chairman and CEO, said. “Healthcare needs new solutions. We must innovate with smarter processes and technologies that help doctors and hospitals deliver better healthcare to more people at a lower cost.

“We will invest in innovations that measurably improve cost, access and quality. That means lower-cost technology for more customers and products matched to specific local needs.

“This reflects the new opportunities we see in healthcare,” Immelt said. “Our newest innovations – low-cost digital x-ray machines, portable ultrasounds, more affordable cardiac equipment – will save costs for doctors, hospitals, the government, families and businesses. This will help level the playing field in health care. With our technology, rural and urban areas and developing countries can have access to the best technology, affordably.”

Commenting on the initiative, John Dineen, President and CEO, GE Healthcare, said: “This is the right time to reposition our healthcare business, given the changes and challenges in the industry. Our customers are looking for productivity and solutions. We will focus on the products, the process excellence and the partnerships that broaden access to healthcare and reduce its cost.”

Among a number of innovations within this initiative GE says it plans to:

● Reduce by 15% the cost of procedures and processes with GE technologies and services

● Increase by 15% people’s access to services and technologies essential for health, reaching 100 million more people every year

● Improve quality and efficiency by 15% for customers through simplifying and refining healthcare procedures and standards of care.

Religious extremism biggest hindrance to polio vaccination

In a letter to Emerging Infectious Diseases, Haider J.Warraich of the Aga Khan University Medical College, Karachi, Pakistan, writes: In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed, with the aim of reducing infection with poliomyelitis virus. Two decades later in 2008, a total of 1,625 children contracted acute flaccid paralysis caused by poliovirus infection. This finding represented a 150% increase over the number of cases in 2007 and resulted in the reemergence of polio as one of the world's deadliest infections. As of 2009, polio remains endemic to 4 countries (India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan); in 2008, cases were also detected in 14 other countries.

Religious opposition by Muslim fundamentalists is a major factor in the failure of immunization programs against polio in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This religious conflict in the tribal areas of Pakistan is one of the biggest hindrances to effective polio vaccination. Epidemiologists have detected transmission of wild poliovirus from polioendemic districts in Afghanistan, most of which are located in the southern region of this country bordering Pakistan, to tribal areas of Pakistan. This transmission has resulted in new cases of polio in previously polio-free districts. The local Taliban have issued fatwas denouncing vaccination as an American ploy to sterilize Muslim populations. Another common superstition spread by extremists is that vaccination is an attempt to avert the will of Allah. The Taliban have assassinated vaccination officials, including Abdul Ghani Marwat, who was the head of the government's vaccination campaign in Bajaur Agency in the Pakistani tribal areas, on his way back from meeting a religious cleric. Over the past year, several kidnappings and beatings of vaccinators have been reported. Vaccination campaigns in Nigeria and Afghanistan have also been hampered by Islamic extremists, especially in the Nigerian province of Kano in 2003, which has resulted in the infection returning to 8 previously polio-free countries in Africa.

Before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, a total of 1,000 persons/day were infected with a virus that would cripple them for the rest of their lives. To eradicate the disease, a major factor will be to gain support of those susceptible to fundamentalist propaganda. Islam is a progressive religion, and religious leaders should be asked to support polio eradication programs. The Imam of the Ka'aba and other influential religious figures should be asked to highlight the plight of children with polio. Vaccinators operating in conflict-ridden areas should be provided protection so that they are better able to perform their duties. Not only will children in these areas be safer, but the disease will not be exported to areas where wild polio transmission has been interrupted by vaccination. Further study of the attitudes of Muslim populations toward vaccination is needed.

● Citation: Warraich HJ. Religious opposition to polio vaccination [letter]. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 Jun. Available from 15/6/978a.htm. DOI: 10.3201/eid1506.090087

Almost 3,000 people commit suicide daily

World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September promotes worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. On average, almost 3,000 people commit suicide daily, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). For every person who completes a suicide, 20 or more may attempt to end their lives.

With the sponsoring International Association for Suicide Prevention, WHO and other partners advocate for the prevention of suicidal behaviour, provision of adequate treatment and follow-up care for people who attempted suicide, as well as responsible reporting of suicides in the media. At the global level, WHO says awareness needs to be raised that suicide is a major preventable cause of premature death. Governments need to develop policy frameworks for national suicide prevention strategies. At the local level, policy statements and research outcomes need to be translated into prevention programmes and activities in communities.

350,000 midwives needed to reduce maternal mortality

Maternal mortality is the “highest health inequity in the world with more than 99% of deaths [in pregnancy and childbirth] occurring in the developing world”, the World Health Organisation (WHO), World Bank, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said in a joint statement released on 5 May to mark International Day of the Midwife.

The organisations warned that there is an urgent need for skilled health workers, particularly midwives. According to the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) and the WHO, the number of midwives worldwide would have to more than double to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of reducing maternal and infant deaths by 2015.

WHO estimates that for the annual 160 million births worldwide it would take an additional 350,000 midwives to ensure that at least 95% of births were attended by trained health workers, thereby helping to meet the MDGs.

ICM estimates that there are 250,000 licensed midwives worldwide, with 13,000 in sub- Saharan Africa. The region had more than half of the world’s maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth in 2005, according to WHO.

FDA approves Aclasta for osteoporosis prevention

Aclasta, currently the only licensed one-yearly treatment for post-menopausal osteoporosis, has now received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for use as a preventative therapy. The drug, a bisphosphonate known as Reclast in the US, has been cleared for use by the organisation to treat patients diagnosed with osteopenia; a condition that presages osteoporosis. The decision was based on a clinical study involving 500 postmenopausal women with low bone mass that revealed that a single infusion of the drug significantly increased bone mineral density at two years compared to a placebo.

It is hoped that the approval, which was given by the FDA on 1 June, will significantly reduce the incidence of osteoporosis in the region.

“It is very important to treat post-menopausal women with low bone mass to prevent them from progressing to osteoporosis,” said Dr Mone Zaidi, MD PhD, Professor of Medicine, Geriatrics, and Physiology and Professor of The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, USA. “The dosing of Reclast for the prevention of post-menopausal osteporosis offers an advance over existing therapies since it can be given once every two years instead of daily, weekly or monthly,” she added.

WHO pre-qualifies Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine

The World Health Organisation has awarded Merck’s cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil, pre-qualification, which means it is now eligible for procurement by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other United Nations (UN) agencies including the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), for use in national immunisation programmes. Gardasil is the first cervical cancer vaccine to receive WHO prequalification.

Gardasil is currently indicated for use in girls and young women 9 through 26 years of age for the prevention of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by HPV types 16 and 18; genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11; and precancerous or dysplastic lesions caused by HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18. HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for approximately 70% of cervical cancer cases, and HPV types 6 and 11 are responsible for approximately 90% of genital warts and about 10% of lowgrade cervical changes/lesions/ dysplasias.

Margaret G. McGlynn, president, Merck Vaccines and Infectious Diseases, said: “We recognise the significant impact cervical cancer has on women and families, especially in the developing world, which is why Merck is committed to improving access to innovative vaccines like Gardasil.”

US NIH launches neglected diseases drug research project

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is launching the first integrated, drug development pipeline to produce new treatments for rare and neglected diseases – an initiative that is set to help people with these diseases worldwide. The US$24 million programme jumpstarts a trans-NIH initiative called the Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases programme, or TRND.

The programme is unusual because TRND creates a drug development pipeline within the NIH and is specifically intended to stimulate research collaborations with academic scientists working on rare illnesses.

The NIH classifies a rare disease as one that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans. NIH estimates that, in total, more than 6,800 rare diseases afflict more than 25 million Americans. However, effective pharmacologic treatments exist for only about 200 of these illnesses. Many neglected diseases also lack treatments. Unlike rare diseases, however, neglected diseases may be quite common in some parts of the world, especially in developing countries where people cannot afford expensive treatments. Private companies seldom pursue new therapies for these types of illnesses because of high costs and failure rates and the low likelihood of recovering investments or making a profit.

Raynard S. Kington, MD, PhD, Acting Director, NIH, said: “NIH is eager to begin the work to find solutions for millions of our fellow citizens faced with rare or neglected illnesses. The federal government may be the only institution that can take the financial risks needed to jumpstart the development of treatments for these diseases, and NIH clearly has the scientific capability to do the work.”

The drug development process is complicated and expensive. Studies suggest that it currently takes more than a dozen years and hundreds of millions of dollars to take a potential drug from discovery to the marketplace. And the failure rate is high.

“This initiative is really good news for patients with rare or neglected diseases,” said Stephen C. Groft, Pharm.D, Director, NIH Office of Rare Diseases Research. “While Congress has previously taken important steps to help these patients, such as providing incentives for drug companies under the Orphan Drug Act, this is the first time NIH is providing support for specific, preclinical research and product development known to be major barriers preventing potential therapies from entering into clinical trials for rare or neglected disorders. While we do not underestimate the difficulty of developing treatments for people with these illnesses, this programme provides new hope to many people worldwide.” 


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