By Maria Saporta
Without a doubt, Atlanta is an international center for global health.
But Atlanta does a poor job promoting itself — both inside and outside of Georgia — as a hub for organizations working to improve the health of people all over the world.
It is a missed opportunity for Atlanta and its economic development efforts.
One city that is seizing the opportunity is Seattle, Washington.
A group of 110 leaders from metro Atlanta traveled to Seattle as part of the LINK delegation from May 4 to May 7 when they heard over and over again how professionals in the Puget Sound area have proclaimed their community as “the” nexus, or when challenged, as “a” nexus for Global Health.
What puts Atlanta in a league by itself is the presence of several premier national and international organizations, medical facilities, universities, health-related companies and non-profits.
Top on Atlanta’s list is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), a federal agency that is based near Emory University.
But CDC is only one of many. There’s the Carter Center, CARE, Emory’s Rollins School for Public Health, the American Cancer Society, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia and Georgia State University among others.
And one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets — the Task Force for Global Health — operates like a free-trade zone where government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, non-governmental organizations and civic groups such as Rotary International are able to collaborate on a multitude of international initiatives to rid the world of its most debilitating diseases.
To read an earlier piece about the Task Force, click here.
With so much activity occurring in Georgia, it would seem as though global health would have become part of Atlanta’s vocabulary and that our economic development leaders would leverage what we have to attract even more of a critical mass of investment in the public health arena.
Instead, Seattle appears to be poised to get a bigger bang for its global health role — largely because it has done a better job than Atlanta selling that theme to the rest of the world.
“We are very proud we are part of the economic fabric of this state,” said Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Seattle-based Washington Global Health Alliance. “Our goal is to advocate for Washington State as the nexus for global health.”
Later Cohen said that it probably was better to describe Seattle as “a” nexus for global health, and she credited London and Atlanta as two other cities that played a similar role.
Interestingly enough, both Atlanta and Seattle can claim the same person as a godfather in global health — Dr. William Foege. In his career, Foege has been a leader in global health at the CDC and the Carter Center — both based in Atlanta. Plus Foege was one of three founders of the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health.
But Foege also has longstanding ties in Seattle, and he has homes in both Washington and Georgia. Foege has been director of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is based in Seattle. And both Atlanta and Seattle accurately can claim Foege as one of their own.
Clearly, one of Seattle’s strengths is the Gates Foundation, which grants millions of dollars every year to tackle global health problems in the most impoverished and vulnerable countries in the world.
Interestingly enough, several people in Seattle grumbled (with some pride) that the Gates Foundation was “zip-code” neutral and didn’t treat hometown organizations with preference. And Atlanta-based global organizations have benefitted from the Gates Foundation’s generosity.
There also has been a great deal of cross-fertilization between both cities and their institutions.
For example, Helene Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, which has programs in nearly 70 countries to end poverty and improve the health and wellbeing of people around the world.
She spent 20 years at the CDC working primarily on HIV/AIDS, and then she went to work for the Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.
The CARE opportunity brought her back to Atlanta. Since her return, Dr. Gayle has spoken about the symbiotic presence of so many global health institutions in Atlanta.
“We are doing a lot more together,” Gayle told me after a conference last month.
But the various entities in Atlanta certainly don’t seem to be coordinating their efforts to strengthen the city’s reputation and recognition of its role.
By comparison, the Washington Global Health Alliance has put together all kinds of marketing materials to tell its story.
“WGHA was formed in 2007 to foster new partnerships between the significant concentration of global health non-profits, research organizations and educational institutions in Washington State. The impact of these organizations is felt in Washington state, as well as by millions around the world. Alliance members collectively and directly run more than 500 health projects in 92 countries, including the United States. This includes 183 different projects focusing on emerging and epidemic diseases, especially in the area of maternal and child health, and 105 vaccine and immunization programs.”
Cohen and other leaders from Washington state are planning the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair in 2012, and they intend to use the occasion to catapult their state’s profile in global health.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s leaders seem to be more interested in the mission of their global work rather than in building Georgia’s reputation. But the people directly involved in the field recognize Atlanta’s role.
“I’m biased,” said David Satcher, a former CDC director and former U.S. Surgeon General who is now with the Morehouse School of Medicine. “I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where you have an agency like the CDC,” and then he went on to list all the other entities in Atlanta.
Even Foege, at the ground-breaking of the expansion of the Task Force for Global Health on April 18, said the organization was one of the reasons “why Atlanta has truly become a global health center for the entire world.” He then went on to call the ask Force as the “mortar” of the great bricks in the world of global health.
Atlanta has an incredible opportunity to glow as a global health center, if all the local organizations can coalesce around a common vision.
If not, other cities, like Seattle, will enjoy the spotlight while Atlanta’s light will dim.