Innovation knows no borders: Delivering on the health MDGs

Steve Davis, CEO of PATH, speaks at the Shared Value Leadership Summit 2014 in New York. Photo by: The Photo Bureau / Shared Value Initiative / CC BY-ND

The world was a very different place 24 years ago.

We now live, on average, six years longer than we did in 1990. That’s extraordinary — and it reflects a shared and concerted effort to save and improve lives.

By every health measure, we have made progress globally: half as many children die from preventable diseases; nearly half as many women die from pregnancy or childbirth; new HIV infections are declining in most places; tuberculosis treatment has saved 20 million lives; and we have fewer deaths due to AIDS or malaria.

The trick, then, is to accelerate this progress, as well as leverage new capabilities that didn’t exist in 2000, when global leaders committed to the Millennium Development Goals.

Despite our progress, far too many people — mainly women and children — are compromised or killed by diseases that we can prevent. MDG 5, for example, shows that we still need better tools to stop post-partum hemorrhaging, which continues to be a leading cause of maternal death. We have proven that grim statistics can be changed.

By building on the experience of the MDGs and tapping new sources of innovation, particularly in poorer countries, we are poised to change history.

Local innovations can have global impact

Last month in Cape Town, South Africa, a group of product designers and health care providers huddled in a small university room evaluating a device that has saved many women from bleeding to death after childbirth. Midwives and skilled birth attendants in many countries have used home-grown variations of the uterine balloon tamponade. They attach tubing to a plastic inflatable such as a surgical glove or condom, insert it into the uterus, and fill it with water. The inflated “balloon” applies pressure to stop the bleeding.

This local innovation has the potential to have a global impact. PATH and our South African partners are working to design and manufacture a safe, low-cost, culturally appropriate and medically approved version of the product that will reach the poorest, most remote places with the most limited infrastructure; in other words, the very places where most women are dying.

In the Cape Town conference room, engineers from Sinapi Biomedical asked the medical experts about the ideal assembly time, viability of pre-filling the device with sterile water, the need for differing approaches depending on source of the bleeding, and ease of insertion and removal.

“When the bleeding continues, meaning the uterus is not contracting and you've exhausted all options with medicine, you have to do something to stop the bleeding,” explained a Kenyan midwife who trains skilled birth attendants on the balloon tamponade. “I haven’t seen it slip out, but you are not sure if it is really in place where you want it to be. If it could be designed like an umbrella so that once it's up there it’s in the right place, that would be great.”

Innovations like these hold the promise of drastically reducing unnecessary death and suffering — so that we not only deliver on the MDG pledges but, in years to come, go well beyond the initial aims.


What’s most exciting at this point — and which wasn’t envisioned when the MDGs were conceived — is the significant capability in places like South Africa and other middle- and even low-income countries to contribute to this effort.

This growth has coincided with tremendous technological advances that allow us to partner in ways unimaginable back in 2000. Innovation knows no borders. It exists everywhere, and we are now so connected that we can leverage these breakthroughs to benefit people around the world.

PATH and the South African Medical Research Council have just announced a Global Health Innovation Accelerator in Cape Town to advance technologies for low-resource settings, particularly medical devices and diagnostics. We have identified six initial maternal and child health tools, such as the balloon tamponade, that hold significant potential. Together with corporate partners, we will conduct product development, manufacturing and sale of this technology in South Africa and, ultimately, the rest of Africa and globally.

For nearly 40 years, PATH has been leading innovation in global health. In the last decade, the global community has invested in one of the largest pipelines of lifesaving technologies the world has ever seen. These investments have led to tremendous advances. From rapid diagnostic tests for malaria and pneumonia to rotavirus vaccines and affordable devices like the balloon tamponade, many innovative solutions exist and others are on the horizon.

With sustained support, further gains are achievable: from the eradication of polio to the elimination of malaria; from controlling and ending the AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics to more effectively diagnosing and treating neglected tropical diseases.

How to spur affordable, lifesaving health innovations

So what needs to happen? How can we make it unheard of for a woman to die in childbirth? Or a child to die of diarrhea? How can we radically improve the course of human development? As we look to 2015 and beyond to the next phase — the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — we need four things to spur affordable, lifesaving innovations:

1. Financial and political support by U.N. member states for research, development, and delivery of new and improved health tools that target the leading killers in low- and middle-income countries. Continued investment in science, technology, and innovation is essential to building on the gains of the MDGs.

2. Governments must integrate research into their strategic plans to achieve global health and development goals. By prioritizing and elevating science, research, and innovation, both developed and developing countries can help spur new vaccines, drugs, devices, and diagnostics.

3. Increased collaboration between the private and public sectors and nongovernmental organizations. As shown by PATH’s work with Sinapi and the South African Medical Research Council, “tri-sector” partnerships leverage the unique strengths of each partner to generate broad-scale impact that none could have achieved individually.

4. Better use of data to inform policies, products, and health interventions. Improving health information systems and strengthening capability for monitoring and evaluation will support decision-making based on evidence and enable citizens to hold governments accountable.

With 500 days to go, we stand at a sensational juncture. Poised to build upon — and learn from — the MDGs, we have the opportunity to chart our future course and, in the process, make history.

What is working, and what more can the international community do in the next 500 days to make progress on the Millennium Development Goals? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Aug. 18, 2014, marks the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Steve Davis

    As president and CEO of PATH, Steve Davis combines his extensive experience as a technology business leader, global health advocate, and social innovator to lead PATH's work to accelerate lifesaving ideas and bring new health solutions to scale. PATH and our partners reach an average of 150 million people per year with innovative technologies and approaches that improve health and save lives.