David Ross looks at the big picture, one as big as the Earth itself when it comes to public health. He sees how a disease blinding villagers in Africa affects Atlantans. Conversely, he views advances here in preventing and treating chronic diseases as ways to help people in developing countries. Seeing health through this lens comes naturally to Ross, president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health. The Decatur-based nonprofit is involved in treating hundreds of millions of people a year, mostly in developing countries, and last fall won the prestigious Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize given to organizations that have “made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.” Even as The Task Force and its partners are on the cusp of eliminating some diseases in other parts of the world, the nonprofit is turning its sights on public health problems here at home.
Q: What does The Task Force do?
A: The short answer is that we are dedicated to addressing large-scale health problems that primarily affect people living in poverty. We work in three broad areas: controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases that cause blindness and disfigurement and affect people living mostly in tropical regions; increasing access to vaccines; strengthening health systems.
Q: Why should your work in tropical diseases interest Atlantans?
A: Many of the diseases we work on today were once common in the United States. For example, trachoma is a bacterial eye infection that can cause blindness and guess what? We used to have it here in this country. The sanitation movement made huge strides in eliminating the disease here and along came antibiotics that gave us the means to eliminate trachoma worldwide. Now we are working with countries in Africa and Asia, helping to improve their sanitation and distributing antibiotics. Eliminating these painful infections is first and foremost a humanitarian cause. But this work also helps lift barriers to healthy, productive lives, which is good for these countries and American business interests.
Q: What has The Task Force accomplished since its founding in 1984?
A: In our early years, we worked with our partners to raise childhood immunization rates in developing countries from roughly 20 percent to 80 percent. We have helped reduce the threat of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in developing countries by increasing access to medicines. Last year, we helped 156 countries switch polio vaccines over a two-week period, an important step to eradicating polio. Today, we are a major partner on global programs to eliminate three neglected tropical diseases by 2025 – trachoma, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, also called elephantiasis because it causes limbs and genitals to swell.
Q: How are you connected to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Carter Center?
A: We partner closely with The Carter Center on both our trachoma and river blindness elimination programs. We also work in partnership with CDC on immunizations, disease surveillance and the training of field epidemiologists who help recognize and respond to disease outbreaks.
Q: Name some of the biggest public health challenges today.
A: The biggest challenge in the U.S. are chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Access to affordable insurance and medicines are major issues for developing countries. Climate change is another growing public health issue. There is no doubt that this is contributing to the spread of diseases like Zika.
Q: Why don’t more people know of The Task Force?
A: Our founder, Dr. Bill Foege, said, “If you want to build partnerships and coalitions, you have to shine the light on your partners and not on yourself.” Winning the Hilton Humanitarian Prize has upped our visibility and led us to realize our obligation to bring our expertise to help address local health problems.
Q: How so?
A: We plan to bring our global health expertise home to help address factors that influence people’s health locally – not just access to doctors but other factors such as economic status, employment, transportation, the well-being of mothers and children, the food we eat. We help mobilize entire countries on other continents to eliminate diseases. We believe that we have much to offer to help address health issues here at home.
For more on The Task Force for Global Health: www.taskforce.org.