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From the fewest polio cases to the greatest contraceptive use—2017 saw a range of health milestones

  • Among the global health milestones of 2017 is the fewest cases of polio ever and the greatest ever use of contraceptives in the developing world.
  • Sue Desmond-Hellman is an advisory Board member for Healthy Returns, CNBC's new healthcare innovation conference on March 28, 2018 in New York.
Sue Desmond-Hellmann in Tanzania with Bill Gates. Desmond-Hellmann is an Advisory Board member for Healthy Returns.
Samantha Reinders | Gates Foundation
Sue Desmond-Hellmann in Tanzania with Bill Gates. Desmond-Hellmann is an Advisory Board member for Healthy Returns.

When you are lucky enough to work in global health and development, you get to witness some of humankind's greatest achievements. Yet often, the most inspiring success stories are also the ones most overlooked.

Here are just a few of the milestones reached in 2017 that didn't make big headlines: We've seen the greatest ever use of contraceptives in the developing world, meaning meaning more than 300 million women and girls can now protect their health, and plan their families and futures. We've witnessed the strongest call for gender equality in decades, with women driving changes to cultural and social norms around the world. And we've had the fewest cases of polio ever —in 1988, there were 20 cases every half-hour, in 2017 there were fewer than 20 all year.

There are many reasons behind these remarkable achievements, from the expertise of scientists and innovators, to the determination of activists and campaigners, who not only see the possibilities but are dedicated to making them realities. But one important factor that often goes unnoticed is the collaboration between the public, private and philanthropic sectors—an indispensable nexus in saving and improving lives.

Take neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which affect one in five people in the world and cause death, disability, and disfigurement. In January, our partners achieved a Guinness World Records title for the most drugs donated in a day—more than 207 million doses. Since 2012, more than 7 billion drugs have been donated and delivered to treat NTDs in one of the largest and most effective health interventions in the world.

Pharmaceutical companies have been the engine of this progress. Beyond donating drugs, the industry has joined forces with academia and public organizations to explore innovative new ways to combat disease, including new diagnostics that reduce costs, get patients treated faster and use scarce resources more efficiently.

Then there are measures to prevent a global pandemic. We don't know what epidemic will come next, who it will affect, or how long it will last. What we do know, is that there will be one. Yet we are woefully unprepared. As my boss Bill Gates says, of all the things that could kill more than 10 million people around the world, the most likely is an epidemic.

"Between 2007 and 2015, public global health research and development funding also created an estimated 200,000 new U.S. jobs and generated $33 billion in economic output."

To help the world respond to this threat, this year saw the creation of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Launched with nearly $600 million in funding from Germany, Japan, Norway, Wellcome, and our foundation, it aims to dramatically reduce the time it takes to develop and produce vaccines.

We are really excited about the potential of a public-private partnership that pools funding and technical expertise. But to truly unlock CEPI's potential, more governments will need to help finance cutting-edge research, more private sector partners are required to translate discoveries into tools and treatments, and regulatory bodies will have to help put those tools and treatments into operation rapidly when the next outbreak strikes.

There is every reason to be optimistic. Collaboration between governments, businesses and non-profits mean we now have an effective vaccine against Ebola. Almost 8 million lives have been saved by treatments for HIV developed with similar co-operation since 2000. And up to 3 million children are saved every year thanks to vaccines.

There is even more good news. For every dollar the federal government invests in global health research and development, 89 cents stays within the U.S. Between 2007 and 2015, public global health research and development funding also created an estimated 200,000 new U.S. jobs and generated $33 billion in economic output.

In the coming years, I see unparalleled opportunity to unleash the full potential of human capacity to solve our greatest challenges. But success depends on us harnessing the power of partnerships.

We'll need the scholarship and new ideas of academia as well as the talent and sense of urgency found in the private sector to drive scientific and technological breakthroughs. We'll need increased investment and thoughtful policy from governments, while ensuring that communities are able to drive change from within. And we'll need all colleagues in our own not-for-profit sector to take risks when others can't or won't.

Research and development has the potential to consign humankind's biggest threats to the history books. When that happens, it will be front page news.

Commentary by Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an advisory Board member for Healthy Returns, CNBC's new healthcare innovation conference on March 28, 2018 in New York.

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