On the Money

How Bill Gates and a top doctor are pushing health care solutions in developing nations

Key Points
  • Microsoft Founder Bill Gates and surgeon-writer-physician Dr. Atul Gawande explain how medical knowledge is making impacts on health care.
  • At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others announced plans to put $180 million in efforts to eradicate malaria.

Saving Lives

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Philanthropist and billionaire Bill Gates, and acclaimed author and surgeon Atul Gawande started their careers going down very different paths.

These days, the two are on a similar mission — figuring out how to solve complex health care issues on a global scale, from dispelling myths about vaccines to improving child mortality rates. And sometimes, the solutions are not as expensive as some may think.

More than 5 million children under the age of 5 died in 2016, and more than half of those deaths could have been prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable solutions, according to the World Health Organization.

Progress has been made: For example the under-5 mortality rate has dropped by 56 percent since 1990. However, the Microsoft founder argues a lot more can be done.

"Getting the personnel to do the right things, clearly we've seen in many cases, you can cut [childhood mortality rates] in half by good practices," Gates said in an interview with CNBC.

For example, the philanthropist talked about how to keep a newborn from getting too cold, using a method called "Kangaroo Care." The mother holds the baby skin-to-skin, and the baby's body temperature will regulate.

But he said, it can be difficult in certain parts of the world to make sure these practices are being followed.

Bill Gates
Adam Galica | CNBC

In order to save as many lives as possible, Gates and Gawande say they focus their efforts on children and older adults.

"[Ninety-four percent] of people survive age 5 to 60," said Gawande.

"Even in the United States, we have a 20-plus year difference in life expectancy between whether you live to your early 60s or early 80s, depending on what city you live in, and what income bracket you're in," the physician explained. "And you see that as well in middle and low-income countries."

He added that "economic inequality and the severity of economic inequality are playing out in ways that actually cost lives."

Gawande said there are several factors that play into this, such as access to health care, access to food and whether you're in a community that has smoking.

"The thing that will save our lives, that let us get our 80 years on average, is having a regular source of care, across the course of your life and access to your needs and medications. And when you have major breaks, major gaps in those, that has real [costs]," said Gawande.

Dr. Atul Gawande, CEO of Haven, a joint venture between Amazon, JPMorgan, and Berkshire Hathaway to figure out how to bring down the costs of health care and insurance.
Lisa Lake | Getty Images

When it comes to vaccines, Gates and Gawande say it's important for people to realize the success vaccines have had in the world, and when you take them away, diseases that were once wiped out will make a re-occurrence.

"When I was a child, when the mumps vaccination wasn't there, I ended up with encephalitis," said Gawande. Because of the disease, the doctor says he was in a coma for three weeks and nearly died.

"Among the most dramatic effects on human life come from vaccination and we just have to keep reminding people," Gawande told CNBC.

When it comes to battling malaria, a disease that's in almost half the countries in the world, Gates says his goal is to not only bring the number of cases down, but to eradicate it from entire countries.

At the World Economic Forum, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Carlos Slim Foundation and others, announced plans to put $180 million in efforts to eradicate malaria in Central America.

"That's part of that progress that will give us the understanding and credibility to eventually, probably ten years from now, go after malaria where it's most intense, which is equatorial Africa," added Gates.