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I got a rare chance in November last year when I met the Head of PATH during one of his visit to Nairobi. We shared about health, development and his work. Here is the interview:  

“I don’t like being sick, because my health enables me to do my work”

This is the mantra that Steve Davis, 55, has held close to his heart. And sure enough he lives by it. He is the Head of an organization that seeks to solve health concerns through innovations.

Mr Davis is the president of the Program for Applied Technologies in Health (PATH).

Steve Davis

He is a lawyer by profession and a specialist in civil rights and intellectual property. But this is tip of his global experience and he shares his thoughts on innovation and health.

Q. Prior to joining PATH in 2012, you served as a strategist and business leader for a range of private, nonprofit companies and international organizations such as Corbis, a global digital media firm; interim CEO of Infectious Disease Research Institute among others.  How did you move from all that, into health?

It is actually a complicated journey; I started my career right after college. I was involved in refugee and human rights work. I spent my earlier days in South East Asia and China working on development issues. As a lawyer I got involved in the social sector. Actually coming to PATH was a combination of many things because at PATH its core social justice and addressing incredible inequities in health. These inequities in health trigger poverty and further issues. Therefore, the previous positions enrich my position at PATH which is a global organization thus I bring a lot of global experience in the health sector.

Q. So far how has it been?

It’s been busy but it’s been great. We have seen some big wins in global health this year such as the roll out of the Meningitis aid vaccine Project across Africa as well good results in the rotavirus vaccine research, Malaria control and HIV/Aids management.

Q. PATH is involved in maters innovation, Could you offer your definition of what you consider ‘innovation’?

Innovation is doing something new in order to make a difference. It can be financial, social and also in health. But I also believe that innovation has to get to the people who need it the most. It’s great to have all these new technologies but it is vital to have these ideas reach to those who need them the most. It however doesn’t always mean doing something brand new; there are things that we have which are effective but sometimes it take new approaches to make them even more effective.

For instance, we have been doing work around malaria control where a lot of the tools we have used include bed nets, spraying but we have to look at new approaches to reinforce them such as use of bed nets which have insecticides; not mere spraying of homes but specifically targeting mosquito reservoirs in order to be fully effective.

Q. You mention you work in malaria and PATH has a malaria vaccine in the works. What have you done in this light so far?

We have comprehensive malaria portfolio as we look at the disease wholistically.  We work on the malaria vaccine; we have a large malaria control program, diagnostic and care, malaria in pregnancy, advocacy in malaria. We are committed to the elimination of malaria.

Notably, PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) and partner GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines is on the late-stage trial of the most advanced malaria vaccine which helps protect infants and young children against malaria for up to 18 months. Three clinical trial sites are based in Kenya—Kilifi, in the coastal region, and Kombewa and Siaya, both in western Kenya.

Also, with the support of partners, PATH has created a new, stable supply of artemisinin- powerful medicine that reduces the number of Plasmodium (Malaria causing parasites) in the blood of patients.

Utility on Malaria:

  • It is stated that 30,000 people died from Malaria in Kenya last year.
  • 20% of child mortality is caused by malaria annually. 
  • In 2012 one in every 20 deaths worldwide caused by Malaria occurred in Kenya.
  • 28 million Kenyans live in areas where they are at risk of contracting malaria.
  • Malaria costs Kenya up to 10 billion shillings annually. 
  • 108,127 pregnant women were diagnosed with malaria in 2012.

Q. Any challenges in this pursuit?

Developing vaccines is a complex, time consuming and an expensive affair. Secondly, it is delivering vaccines where they are needed the most. Also we still hear of cases that a child taken to a clinic with a fever and immediately it is assumed that they have malaria. Sadly, we end up losing a lot of these children and even mothers because we did not treat them with the right medicines.

Q. Recently, PATH released 10 innovations geared on addressing maternal mortality and the lives of children. They seek to address issues of post-delivery bleeding, high blood pressure, infections in new born as well as contraceptives. What prompted this move?

Our commitment is to contribute directly to maternal and infant health by reducing morbidity and deaths as spelled out in the Millennium Development Goals five and four. Therefore these 10 innovations are our approaches to address these concerns. However, we have not done enough as an organization in this compared to children health but we are striving to make a difference. As we know that mothers take care of their children and not themselves.

Children die from diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea and rotavirus. The ten innovations will have an immediate impact on these leading killers of women and children particular in developing nations.

For instance one of the innovations is the Non-pneumatic anti shock garment which will slow excessive bleeding after childbirth and stabilize the mother.

The innovations have already available and used in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania in Africa and in India in Asia. They are not yet available on scale the scale we need but the East Africa region is in the plans.

Q. Recently Save the Children, the independent organisation for children, released a report on maternal health dubbed Surviving the First Day: State of the World’s Mothers 2013”. It ranked Finland, Sweden and Norway champions of maternal and infant health while Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the rear. What can we learn from this discrepancy?

One, these findings show there is a close link between health and poverty. Place in DRC getting basic requirement is an issue as there lacks institutional grounding for matters of health due to years of conflict, this disable the ability to reach to people who need health services. Finland is a rich country with a solid social integrated system on health coverage. Also, it has a relatively ‘small’ and uniformed population. In fact a vaccine campaign in Norway will be more successful than one in India where it is a mixed populace.

Utility on Maternal and Child Mortality:

  • Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • Maternal mortality is higher in women living in rural areas and among poorer communities.
  • Young adolescents face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than older women.
  • More than one million babies around the world die on the day they are born each year. Nearly 3 million die within the first month.
  • Between 1990 and 2010, maternal mortality worldwide dropped by almost 50%

Q. Parting word to young innovators in Kenya?

Your country needs your creativity, your ideas and your fresh outlook to life. If you have an idea, say in health, go for it and do not give up. We can learn from you as there are more opportunities not than in the past. However, know about your Intellectual Property rights to protect your innovation.

Q. Other than the pursuit for health equity what else do you enjoy doing?

I like to travel, hanging out with my son, reading, playing the piano, participate in marathons, skiing, and writing.

Q. Memorable event in your work?

One that comes to mind, it was recently actually, I was in Congo for a week where we had set up night-time HIV/Aids testing in a part of Lubumbashi, (southeastern part of DRC) on a seedy slum, frequented by commercial sex workers and whose HIV infections are pretty high. So there were a lot of people who preferred this cover of darkness to get tested and counseled instead of walking into a similar facility during the day for fear of stigma. So this woman comes to get tested and I am a few meters from the tent she goes for the test. Minutes later she comes out rejoicing and she finds me there and she is jumping up and down and hugging me.

She is elated as her partner has the HIV virus (but have been having protected sex) and she had been too scared to get tested, but when she did on that day, she found out she was HIV negative. She promised to kill a white chicken in thanksgiving for narrowly escaping ’death’.

Thank you Steve Davis for the time and great insight.

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