One Voice for Global Health

When advocates speak with one voice, amazing things can happen. Here in the U.S., with help from high-visibility breast cancer advocates, the federal budget for breast cancer research has increased nearly eight-fold over a 20-year span. More recently, the National Alzheimer’s Project Act redoubles public efforts to find a cure for this devastating disease.

The fight against AIDS stands as perhaps the most telling example of the power of advocacy. The voices of so many, amplified by entertainment heavyweights, have helped shine a light onto efforts at combating the disease, from prevention to treatment.

Research, of course, plays no small part in either area, from the tantalizing goal of a vaccine to the antiretrovirals that have turned an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. And one panelist at AIDS 2012 – going on this week in Washington, DC – sees research as an entryway into advocacy.

“Research is an opportunity to build sustainable advocates behind one voice for global health,” said Prince Bahati of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Research brings together diverse constituencies: It pushes the frontiers of scientific knowledge, it improves health around the globe and it positively affects local economies.

But one word in his statement is not to be minimized: “opportunity.” Research, and the people who perform research, cannot be the sole voice; instead, research becomes a gateway to help build out the advocacy community. A full – and full-throated – advocacy community has the chance to change the world.

Part of that diversity was on display all week at the conference: Veterans groups and faith-based organizations were among the constituencies represented.

Those many, diverse voices are needed now more than ever. The U.S. contribution to AIDS research is significant, but there are no priorities in the current political climate. Christine Lubinski of the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) encouraged the audience to do its homework before meeting with congressional offices. She cited Research!America’s economic impact work, saying that we must try to demonstrate a domestic constituency for these issues, with U.S.-based research being a clear entry point. She also gave some words of advice for those who face policy makers that say our AIDS situation is leading us into a “treatment mortgage” for 30 years: It is actually a temporary bridge until research yields a vaccine. Congress used to have similar debates regarding polio and the “iron lung,” debates that evaporated when science produced a polio vaccine.

We also know that sometimes research has unexpected and multiple benefits for worldwide health. For example, AZT was developed to treat cancer. It failed in that regard, but federally funded scientists discovered that it works for HIV/AIDS.

Research and its advocates, as part of the larger advocacy community, have a clear role to play. Each voice adds to the chorus – and we’ve seen what those voices can do.

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