I knew from an early age that I was interested in health issues but I grew up in Canada where the concept of liberal arts education really did not exist. Upon graduation from high school students have to select between a career in “Arts” (where most social sciences were housed) or “Sciences”. The daughter of a mining engineer and a biologist (albeit cum lawyer) with a strong interest in health there was not doubt in my mind: I was a scientist, not an artist. So I happily enrolled in an undergraduate degree in Immunology at McGill University which was a highly intensive program with a focus on biochemistry, microbiology, and physiology and sneered at my “artists” friends – who we all knew would never find jobs.

At McGill, I spent countless lectures in large lecture theaters memorizing biological pathways and the structure of organic molecules and invested hundreds of hours pipetting, centrifuging, and culturing nasty smelling bacteria and viruses in a lab. But for some reason, it was just not for me. All of my classmates knew that they wanted to go to medical school or get a PhD in basic life sciences, but not me. Instead, I got involved in student politics and planned to go to law school.

Towards the end of my studies I took an advanced seminar on current challenges in vaccine development. In that seminar, I was assigned the topic “pneumococcus vaccine and the developing world”. I had never considered the connection between what we were studying in the classroom and its broader impact on the rest of the world. Through my research for that project, I learned that a new pneumococcus vaccine was about to come onto the market targeting mostly ear infections in the developed world, despite the fact that the same infectious agent was responsible for upwards of 2-3 million childhood deaths and significant morbidity in the developing world. Yet, due to financial incentives it was unclear whether the vaccine would even be effective in places like Africa where there slightly different versions of the bacterial types included in the vaccine. This single project was perhaps the event in my life that made it clear to me that I wanted to devote my career to global health.

Fast forward to today, that vaccine did eventually go onto the market, and did become the first blockbuster vaccine product. But coverage of the vaccine is horrendously low in developing world today. During the past year, we have seen some new developments, including the introduction of a pneumococcus vaccine in the Gambia and Rwanda. We have also seen the launch of an advanced market commitment program for the development of a more tailored pneumococcus vaccine for the developing world. And just this past week, GAVI unveiled plans to distribute the vaccine to over 130 million children worldwide.

While there is lots to be happy about on this first ever World Pneumonia Day (Monday, November 2, 2009), it is clear that efforts are just underway to address the number one killer of children. It is going to take years of focused attention, commitment from donors and governments, and financial support, but this is one battle that we should be able to win. So I will be wearing my blue jeans this Monday in support of World Pneumonia Day, and I encourage you to do so as well.

All photos were taken from the interesting “Faces of Pneumonia” feature on the World Pneumonia Day website.

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1 Response » to “How pneumonia got me interested in global health”

  1. Jenna says:

    I was shocked when I learned that pneumonia kills more children than any other disease. And that we have simple tools to stop it. Thanks for bringing greater attention to this disease.

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