Invited Speaker Dr. Harvey Rubin on "A Proposal for a Global Governance System for Infectious Diseases”

Michael Allegrezza

It’s easy to forget about infectious disease when one has access to quality healthcare that includes vaccines and antibiotics for most major pathogens. But infections still account for 22% of all deaths worldwide. In the developing world, it is far worse. For instance, over half of all deaths in sub-Saharan Africa are from infectious diseases. While many researchers are using science and technology to combat this problem, others have noticed that creating international policies for monitoring and controlling infectious disease would also greatly decrease mortality and minimize global outbreaks. 

In June, Dr. Harvey Rubin gave a talk entitled “A Proposal for a Global Governance System for Infectious Diseases” to members of the Penn Science Policy Group. In addition running a research lab, Dr. Rubin has established himself as a critical intellect on the topic of global disease and acts as the Director of Penn's Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response. His publications and testimonies to various bureaucracies offer credibility to his opinions, but it is the real-world application of his insight into vaccine distribution that gives him the most authority.

Vaccines are an enormously effective way to prevent infectious disease. Unfortunately, access to vaccines is limited in certain areas of the globe, specifically places that don’t have a power grid, as vaccines need to be kept refrigerated. Powering the refrigerator requires access to electricity, which is unreliable in remote or under-developed areas. Dr. Rubin’s solution: use the excess energy generated by cell-phone towers, which basically cover the globe (as he puts it, “there are more cell phones in the world than there are toilet bowls”), to power vaccine refrigerators. This simple solution could save 5 million lives annually. After working with local governments, non-profits, and commercial organizations, Dr. Rubin and his team have established a pilot program in Zimbabwe and hope to begin another soon in India. You can check it out here:

Dr. Rubin explained that there is also a challenge ahead to monitor and control global outbreaks of disease.  Even with the recent scares of influenza and SARS outbreaks, there are still no international treaties related to infectious disease. Problems such as the rise in antibiotic resistant pathogens, unsafe and poorly secured containment facilities, political instability, and minimal drug development incentives are creating a climate for global disease outbreak. But these problems present opportunity: each problem has policy-oriented solutions that could be used to minimize the risk of such an outbreak. Towards that end, in 2009 Dr. Rubin published a proposal in Current Science detailing four interconnected components where policy could help shape global disease monitoring and control, which he discussed with us during his presentation.

To wrap up the discussion, Dr. Rubin shared sage advice for those interested in making a career out of this work: “Don’t do what I did.” The demands of academic research will quell this type of branching out until tenure is obtained. He mentioned that good places to develop a career in international health policy can be found outside academia in government and NGOs. Most importantly though, “be an expert in something; then people will believe that you know what you are talking about.”


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