By Maria Saporta and Ruchika Tulshyan

Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, February 8, 2013

Atlanta’s emergence as a center for global health was reaffirmed Feb. 4 when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Task Force for Global Health a $28.8 million grant to combat neglected tropical diseases.

The Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health, the fifth-largest nonprofit in the United States, is among a constellation of organizations based in Atlanta that is working to improve the lives of the most impoverished people in the world.

In addition to the Task Force, they include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Carter Center, the Rollins School for Public Health at Emory University, CARE USA, MAP International, MedShare, the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity International and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

“The importance of Atlanta as a center of excellence in global health rests on individuals and a network of supportive institutions,” said Dr. Bill Foege, who has done as much as anyone to put Atlanta on the global health map.

Foege was a director of the CDC, director of the Carter Center, co-founder of the Task Force and the person credited for leading the effort to eradicate smallpox. Foege went on to become a senior adviser for the Gates Foundation before moving back to Atlanta last year.

“It works both ways,” Foege said. “The grant came to Atlanta because of the global health focus that exists here. And on the other hand, the grant contributes to making that focus stronger.”

The Gates grant specifically will establish a “Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center” to tackle five diseases — lymphatic filariasis, more commonly known as “elephantiasis”; onchocerciasis, better known as “river blindness”; schistosomiasis, called “snail fever”; soil-transmitted helminths, also known as “intestinal worms”; and trachoma, a bacterial eye infection.

All the diseases can be treated by existing drugs that have been donated by pharmaceutical companies. The international goal set by the World Health Organization is to control or eliminate the diseases by 2020. The challenge has been getting the drugs to the people who need them.

“We are not investing in research; we are investing in solving problems,” said Julie Jacobson, senior program officer of global health and neglected infectious diseases for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation. “The Task Force really provides a good home because of its collaborative approach.”

The Gates Foundation gave the Task Force a grant of $11.7 million in 2006 to combat elephantiasis. Leading that effort was Dr. Eric Ottesen, who had joined the Task Force to help build a collaborative model with researchers around the world.

“It was a really good model in how to work with other researchers,” said Jacobson, who added that she has spent more time in Atlanta than she ever expected. “It went very well.”

So the Gates Foundation worked with Ottesen to see if the same model could be replicated to combat other diseases.

“It’s common sense,” Ottesen said. “It is less about competition and more about getting really good people to carry out what needs to be done and who can best do the job.”

The principal investigator for the $28.8 million grant will be Patrick Lammie, a senior scientist in the Division of Parasitic Diseases and Malaria for the CDC’s Center of Global Health. He will be joined by Ottesen and Dr. Dominique Kyelem, a doctor from Burkina Faso who has been with the Task Force since 2007.

“There is an intellectual energy here in Atlanta that is important in driving the research,” Lammie said. “There’s an opportunity to harness all this intellectual energy. The challenge to us from the foundation is to use the gathering place of the Task Force to try to pull people together under one tent.”

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force, said the approach is to support the research and outreach being done in the countries affected by the diseases, hence the name — “Support Center.”

But Atlanta plays an all-important role in convening the researchers to work through the various issues that stand in the way of getting the vaccines and drugs to the people who need it.

“It’s hard to get researchers on one disease to work together to share their secrets,” Rosenberg said. “Now we’re trying to do this with five diseases. It’s extraordinary, Atlanta is becoming known for convening and collaboration. It’s happening here.”

Jeffrey Rosensweig, a professor of international business and director of the Global Perspectives Program at Emory University, said the Gates grant validates the vision for Atlanta’s ability to compete in the 21st century global economy.

“Atlanta has been working hard to be a world center of global health,” Rosensweig said. “Arguably, this gift solidifies our claim to be on the path to be a true No. 1 center.”

Hans Gant, senior vice president of economic development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, agreed.

“Over the last few decades, Atlanta’s health organizations have been at the forefront of leading research and disease eradication,” Gant said, adding that the Gates grant is a great recognition of “the value that Atlanta brings in solving critical global health issues.”

Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA (who also worked at the CDC and the Gates Foundation), said the Gates grant provides an important injection of resources and reaffirms the work being done in Atlanta.

“Atlanta has become quite a powerhouse for global health,” Gayle said, giving much of the credit to the CDC. “We have done some great work collaborating here in Atlanta, but I think there’s more that could be done.”

“There’s no question,” agreed Pete McTier, retired president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation who sits on the Task Force’s board.

“The Gates grant confirms that Atlanta is the convening point for collaboration surrounding global health issues,” McTier said. “The potential for even greater collaboration and greater impact is there.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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