The buzzing of a single mosquito is enough to break a good night’s sleep.
So imagine when that same sound is multiplied a hundred times – it can at best be described as eerie.
Especially when these mosquitoes are in a white mesh cage, in a vacuum-sealed laboratory, and it’s around feeding time.
It is at this opportune moment that Lizette Koekemoer, dressed in a red jersey and white lab coat, sticks her hand into the cage.
While most would squirm at the thought of dozens of mosquitoes making a blood meal of your arm, Koekemoer hardly seems to notice. For her, feeding mosquitoes is as normal as breathing; she has done it so many times she no longer gets itchy from the bites.
“When you are working on them, you learn to appreciate them as a living organism. When you put a mosquito under a microscope, they are actually beautiful. I think people laugh when I tell them I work on mosquitoes and I get paid for it,” says Koekemoer.
For 23 years, Koekemoer has been at the forefront researching these insects across Africa. She is part of the Malaria Entomology Research Unit on the 10th floor of the Faculty of Health Sciences building at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Koekemoer’s passion goes beyond the laboratory to barbeques where she gets excited to tell you what species you’ve just squashed on your leg, having been bitten more times than most she would know.
The reason we are here today, in this sealed laboratory with Koekemoer’s arm in a cage and mosquitoes sucking her dry, is to talk about a mosquito called Anopheles vaneedeni, discovered by her team on the Makhathini Flats, in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
“Anopheles vaneedeni has been known about since 1977, it has never – before now – been identified as a malaria-carrying vector in nature,” says Koekemoer.
Up until now it was thought two other mosquitoes, called anopheles arabiensis and anopheles funestus, were the main vectors of malaria transmission. Vectors are living organisms that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.
It is not just a new carrier species that has Koekemoer worried. On the rise are mosquitoes with an increased resistance to insecticides.
According to the scientist, conventional insecticide-based mosquito control methods, such as bed nets and repellents are now becoming redundant.
“A mosquito’s whole body is designed to keep it alive. If you have one female that has formed a resistance, when she lays eggs, you then have gene resistance going all over the place. You need to monitor this and then move on to a new insecticide to kill those ones.”
While these methods may have proven to be effective tackling funestus, which prefers to feed on humans indoors, it means arabiensis and now vaneedeni can never be completely eradicated. This is because both arabiensis and vaneedeni snack on people outdoors.
“All malaria species are active from dusk to dawn. That’s their peak period. As soon as the sun goes down, they start feeding. People socialize at night, when it’s warm. They don’t go to bed. Bed nets only protect you when you are sleeping. They don’t protect you when you are outside cooking and socializing,” says Koekemoer.
Sterilized males to combat malaria
Back in the lab, it is Koekemoer’s job to come up with ways of controlling malaria vectors. One of the team’s more radical solutions is sterilizing males with radiation.
“We’ve got a gamma radiator. So it’s fast and quick – 60 seconds. We put the pupae in a radiation chamber, put them on a jig and then one minute later, they are sterilized.”
Called the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), Koekemoer wants to build a rearing facility that will pump out 50,000 sterilized males per week. Once nuked, these sterile males are reared and released into the wild to mate with wild females.
“At a small scale, it works really well. The key to this research is female mosquitoes mate only once in their lifetime and if the male is sterile, she will not produce viable eggs. It’s like birth control… In the lab we have up to 96% reduction in progeny,” says Koekemoer.
It has taken seven years of research to get to this point. Once built, Koekemoer estimates they would need R1.5 million ($113,000) to R2 million ($150,000) per year for SIT to run successfully.
“The thing to remember is a lot of research is done in colonized mosquitoes, in a controlled environment in a lab set-up. It’s difficult when you take this into the field, when your situation is a lot more complex and there is more than one species of mosquito,” says Koekemoer.
SIT was first used to control screwworm fly in America in the 1950s.
“It hasn’t been done with malaria, because malaria is complicated. Countries that are affected by malaria are also often not politically stable and financial resources are limited,” says Koekemoer.
The threat of new species?
Although vaneedeni’s emergence is worrying, it’s not yet time to panic.
“To put it into perspective, we collected a large number of species. So percentage wise, it’s not high. Out of the 3,000 we have collected, we had one KZN sample that was infected,” says Koekemoer.
Vaneedeni is also considered a minor vector because the mosquito prefers to feed on livestock rather than humans.
The question the team are trying to answer is why now? One theory they have is because of the changing environment in KZN. At the time the team found the mosquito, the area was drought-stricken.
“We need to look at the bigger picture of the environmental impact. Was it a once-off because it was so dry? That’s what we need to determine. Your environmental factors influence everything. Because there was drought, the impact on the number of cattle available, or the availability of water might have diminished, which is their preferred host and sites. If you are the only blood source, then the mosquito has no choice but to come to you and you could get affected,” says Koekemoer.
The field site is naturally isolated, between a mountain range and the ocean, in the Mamfene district 60kms from Sodwana and close to the town of Ndumu. A team member collects mosquitoes twice a week throughout the year. The mosquitoes fly into clay pot traps and are then catalogued by species.
“The fact that we now know about vaneedeni means we can target our research towards knowing more about this vector’s behavior,” says Koekemoer.
Until effective controls for outdoor mosquitoes are developed, eliminating local malaria transmission in southern Africa will be extremely difficult.
“Thanks to other malaria control measures, the number of cases is down to around 9,000 per year from over 60,000 in 2000, but it has proven hard to bring the insect population – and infection rates – down any further using the traditional method of indoor residual spraying,” says Koekemoer.
“There are countries that have resistance to all the classes of insecticides. There are only four classes approved by the World Health Organization for mosquitoes. In some countries, there is resistance to all four classes. It highlights the need to invest and start looking into alternative control methods.”
Coming up with new methods is a race to diffuse a ticking time bomb.
“These genes will eventually move into our borders whether it is the mosquito or the parasite, it’s only a matter of time, it will come into South Africa. You need to be one step ahead. If something happens, what’s Plan B? ”
Thanks to a buzzing mosquito in a pot and a little radiation therapy, scientists are a step closer to solving the malaria malaise. Until then, it’s sleepless nights for them.
Facts About Malaria
Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.
According to the latest WHO estimates, released in December 2016, there were 212 million cases of malaria in 2015 and 429,000 deaths.
The WHO African Region carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden. In 2015, the region was home to 90% of malaria cases and 92% of malaria deaths.
In 2015, 91 countries and areas had ongoing malaria transmission.
Between 2010 and 2015, malaria incidence among populations at risk (the rate of new cases) fell by 21% globally. In that same period, malaria mortality rates among populations at risk fell by 29% globally among all age groups, and by 35% among children under 5.
Vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than one million deaths annually.
Would You Seek Medical Care In Africa’s Public Sector?
It’s the worst thing to happen – to anyone.
We meet Natasha Sibanda in Johannesburg’s bustling Central Business District. On the street, the cantankerous crowd has a life of its own, their colorful clothes distinct in the morning light as they move in unison like shoals of fish.
Adjacent to this street is a tiny one-bedroom apartment the size of a matchbox and in grimy grey.
As we enter, a pall of gloom. Sibanda, only 22, lost her husband Samuel four weeks ago in Zimbabwe, his country of birth. Their only son is a year old.
“My husband was 25 years old… We were in Zimbabwe visiting family when he suddenly fell ill. We went to the hospital where they gave us a list of all the items they needed in order to help him. We had to buy all of them [with] cash at a pharmacy before they could treat him,” she says, as a lone tear rolls down her cheek.
The items totaled a bill of $300, which they didn’t have. Her sister, working in South Africa, promised to send the money the following day.
“I pleaded with the hospital to help him while we looked for the money because we both lived in Zimbabwe and had no jobs but they said his condition wasn’t serious and we had to come back when we have money because the hospital didn’t have any of the medicines needed.”
Heartbroken and worried, Sibanda took her husband home.
The night was going to be long.
At about 2AM, Samuel started vomiting. She took him back to the hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.
“I’m still not sure what killed him but I’m hurting because doctors wanted to help him but couldn’t because they didn’t have medicines and now he is dead and my son has no father,” sobs Sibanda.
Her story is only one of many painful parallels in some of Africa’s developing economies with poor – and crippling – healthcare systems.
“You don’t want to fall ill in Zimbabwe. It’s like a backyard garage where you bring all your car parts for your vehicle to be fixed. If you have no cash, you can’t be treated,” says Mthokozisi Khuphe, a former government nurse.
Khuphe worked for government for eight years before moving to the private sector and then migrating to work in Namibia.
“When I started, there was already a crisis. I remember there was a big strike and a lot of people resigned. We, the new junior staff, had to work on everything even though we were just starting out. I would have 120 to 150 patients in a day [who] I had to help by myself,” says Khuphe.
He says Zimbabwe’s healthcare system was and still is putting patients’ lives at risk.
“Many patients lost their lives. I remember sometimes there would be no syringes, and needles were in shortage. We would reuse them repeatedly on the same patient when in fact you are supposed to use one and dispose it off immediately… There was even a time the whole hospital had one ventilator… As a nurse, it is difficult to know what can help the patient but you don’t have the equipment and the patient dies.”
Zimbabwe is not alone. Africa’s public healthcare sector is in the intensive care unit.
Although the situation is not as terrible as in Zimbabwe, the World Bank and World Health Organisation issued a report on universal healthcare in the world in December, where South Africa received a score of 70 out of 100 for Universal Health Coverage. (The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom (UK) scored 90.)
The report stated that the poor quality of healthcare in the public sector was concerning.
Jasson Urbach, a director of the Free Market Foundation and head of its Health Policy Unit says the situation is dire. There are pervasive problems with the quality of healthcare in the public sector.
“The healthcare system is a sea of mediocrity in the government-run healthcare sector, punctuated by islands of excellence in the private healthcare sector. Currently all political will is aimed at implementing National Health Insurance (NHI) [free health for all] and nothing is being done to address the current issues of pervasive poor quality in the public sector,” he says.
According to Urbach, the NHS in the UK employs 1.3 million people to service 55 million UK residents, yet the entire South African civil service employs 1.3 million people.
“To think that South Africa can run a government administered Universal Health Coverage system such as the National Health Service is unrealistic.”
He says the poor quality of services in the public sector is the single greatest challenge in South African healthcare.
“If the quality is not addressed, 70 percent of public facilities will not qualify to contract with the NHI, if it gets implemented, which will collapse service provision in the healthcare system altogether. Poor quality is not the result of shortages of funding; it is the result of poor management,” he says.
It is true.
According to inspection records published by the Office of Health Standards Compliance, a government agency in South Africa, hospitals and clinics in the government’s flagship NHI pilot program are failing to improve any faster than those in the rest of the country.
Among the 1,427 facilities inspected, only 89 scored a pass mark of 70% or more. Facilities fell short on matters ranging from the availability of medicines to infection control.
“As an example, there are contracts with cleaning services in place in all public facilities, or cleaners are employed. If a facility is not considered clean, that is a management failure. Poor systems and processes lead to undue delays in treatment. Incompetent political managers at the provincial level, leads to incompetent appointments at hospital levels, which leads to failure of the system,” says Urbach.
Patients in South Africa’s public hospitals are dejected.
Results cited in the General Household Survey 2015 suggest healthcare received from the private sector is significantly preferred to that from the public sector, and states that users of private healthcare facilities seem to be more satisfied with those facilities than users of public healthcare facilities, across all provinces.
“Whereas 97.7 percent of users were satisfied with private facilities (91.9 percent were very satisfied), only 81.1 percent of users of public healthcare facilities were somewhat satisfied or very satisfied. Only 57.6 percent of individuals that used public healthcare facilities were very satisfied,” states the report.
According to Urbach, another problem is that the government does not have the same incentives as the private sector. It partly explains why there are poor healthcare outcomes in the public sector.
Dr Matthew Adams, a surgeon at one of the big public hospitals in South Africa, agrees with Urbach.
“Private hospitals pay two to three times more than government and they have better working conditions compared to us… essential machine breakdown and fixing them is delayed, and tenders to supply certain things are given to people who can’t deliver on time which always sets us back,” he says.
That’s not all.
Adams says hospitals are understaffed and they have to work long hours and there is misadministration by hospital management.
“[The] department says there is no more money for new doctors but not enough monitoring is done on how much is spent per patient and measures aren’t taken to see how we can save the hospital money… Hospitals are actually set up in a hierarchy, so that the first place a patient goes to is a clinic before a hospital for day-to-day assistance, but because of low quality, patients overlook lower level health centers to go to hospitals and doctors see cases they are not supposed to see adding to doctor frustration,” he says.
Frustration leads to doctors leaving the public sector for the private sector, or leaving the country altogether.
“The last time I saw statistics [about the number of doctors leaving] was in 2005 when the Health Professions Council of South Africa reported that despite the fact that medical schools produced approximately 19,500 graduates between 1990 and 2005, their records show only 9,304 new registrations during this period. This implies that a significant number of individuals, after graduating, instead of practising in South Africa, are leaving the country,” says Urbach.
Among the common reasons cited for the mass exodus of skilled healthcare personnel from the public sector are poor salaries, high workloads, poor work environments and few opportunities for advancement.
According to Liz Still, who compiles the annual Health Care in South Africa publication, the public sector does not have enough posts available to employ South Africa’s health professionals. For example, over the period 2002-2010, approximately 11,700 doctors graduated but only 4,403 posts were created in the public sector. In the field of dentistry, there were 2,140 graduates but only 248 public posts were concurrently created.
These conditions impact the quality of care.
According to various reports, last year, South Africa’s Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, said more than 5‚500 medical negligence claims have been made against the health department since 2014. The number of claims grows every year. There were 1‚562 claims made in 2014/15‚ 1‚732 in 2015/16 and 1‚934 in 2016/17.
And it hurts the tax payer.
The department paid R391.32 million ($32.4 million) in medico-legal claims in 2014/15 alone and a whopping R730.87 million ($60.6 million) in 2015/16.
It is so bad that in 2016/17‚ the total value of claims rose to R1.2 billion ($99.5 million)‚ with Gauteng’s 521 claims accounting for almost half of this at R566 million ($47 million).
Romany Sutherland, an attorney at LLA INC. Law, says the majority of these cases are due to obstetric damages.
“These are children who suffer brain injury as a result of complications during birth… South Africa has a 10 percent higher cerebral palsy rate than anywhere in the world and we don’t know why this might be… To me, as an attorney, it comes down to perhaps people not being trained properly. Nurses are not involving the obstetricians soon enough,” she says.
Cerebral palsy cases cost the government about R17 million ($1.4 million) on average per case.
“Each province deals with the issues differently. I’m in the Western Cape and here; we try and negotiate or mediate these cases as soon as possible so that reasonable pay-outs are made without undue delay. I believe the best way to go with the negligence cases is to take the initiative to open discussion with your opponent,” says Sutherland.
The problem is, some health departments don’t have any decision-makers who have settlement authority. It means all negligence cases have to go before a judge in the court of law before the department can pay out. It takes longer and costs the state more money.
“The litigation process is extremely expensive. The amounts you see reported in the media don’t include costs. It is a big worry because I haven’t gone to court in nine years because I like to negotiate cases and come to reasonable settlement and the Gauteng government doesn’t allow for that to happen,” she says.
According to Sutherland, some costs to take the case through trial can be four times the amount of settlement.
The amount of money that attorneys stand to make on such cases has caused a boom in the medical negligence industry.
“There are attorneys who are touting for clients and some even paying midwives up to R30,000 ($2,500) for a file. There are also some frivolous cases where the negligence did not cause damages… yet they carry on… If such cases are settled, it is not the touting attorney’s fault but the department that is not defending those cases properly,” she says.
The rise in lawsuits is also causing medical insurance for obstetricians to rise.
“An obstetrician is currently paying R1 million ($82,830) in insurance. I think the price has gone up by approximately R100,000 ($8,283) if not more every year for the past couple of years… This is also cause for some medical students to not consider this field because insurance is just too expensive.”
Back in Johannesburg, as we part with Sibanda, she tells us she wants to go back to school to study public healthcare administration so she can help the very hospitals that didn’t give her husband timely treatment. She wants to save lives.
If only government authorities sitting in their airconditioned offices and seeking treatment in plush private hospitals knew her pain and predicament.
Death, Denial And Fear: What Listeriosis Cost South Africa
December 25, 2017, was the worst Christmas for the Warmback family.
The festivities began two days before with the arrival of Keith and Glenda Warmback’s children from the US. There was food and celebration as the couple saw their one-year-old granddaughter for the first time.
“That evening, we went out and my wife had a chicken salad [from one of the fast food restaurants]. The following day my wife Glenda started having a tummy ache. She went to lie down for a while. She fell asleep and I woke her up around 5PM and she said she couldn’t get out of bed because she wasn’t feeling well and had a running tummy,” says Keith.
Keith says he was woken up by barking dogs, in their room where Glenda was asleep, at about midnight.
“I went to see what was going on and I found Glenda on the floor. She said she thought she had a stroke,” he recalls.
He bundled her up and rushed her to the nearest private hospital.
“The staff was disastrous… They were disinterested in my wife’s condition and three others who were there with similar symptoms,” says Keith.
According to Keith, it was just the beginning of a series of mistakes. Eventually, Glenda’s lungs collapsed and she died at 2AM on Christmas day. She was 61 years old; they had been married for 41 of those.
“The painful thing is the incompetence at the hospital,” says Keith.
Doctors sited natural causes as a cause of death. The problem is, just 20 days before, the health minister had announced a foodborne outbreak called listeriosis. According to Keith, Glenda had all the symptoms and blood tests indicated she had it but she was never treated for it.
At the time of going to press, Glenda was one of 183 South Africans who had died from this disease since January 2017; 978 had been infected. It is the world’s worst outbreak of listeriosis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Listeriosis is the name of a disease that people develop when they eat food that is contaminated with the bacterium called listeria,” says Dr Juno Thomas, head of the Centre for Enteric Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
According to Thomas, this bacterium is found worldwide. It can be in soil, water and even faeces in many animals.
“Once in the environment, it is very difficult to get rid of because it attaches to things very easily. Once it attaches itself in an environment, it produces a layer of a sticky sugary slime that sticks onto the surfaces and makes it difficult to remove and resistant to disinfectants,” says Thomas.
According to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, South African hospitals saw and treated an average of 60 to 80 patients affected by listeria between 2013 and 2016 with no problems.
Then, in July last year, doctors started seeing more cases of newborn babies born with listeria.
It was a cause for concern. They informed the NICD. A search, led by Thomas, began. On November 29, they found that at the time, 557 people had been infected.
“A team from the NIDC interviewed 109 patients to obtain details about foods they had eaten in the month before falling ill. Eighty five percent of the people reported eating ready-to-eat (RTE) processed meat products, of which polony was the most common, followed by viennas/sausages and then other ‘cold meats’,” says Motsoaledi.
Sixty percent of cases were reported in Gauteng, 13% in the Western Cape and 7% in KwaZulu-Natal.
“We think it affected Gauteng the most because of consumer behavior. Things like sausages, polony and viennas are staple street and household foods in Gauteng because they are affordable and quick to prepare. The economy of Gauteng also plays a factor. There are many more people who can afford to buy these items than other provinces,” says Thomas.
Even armed with this information, the source of the outbreak remained unknown.
Symptoms of Listeriosis:
“When you have an outbreak like this you have no idea where it comes from. We also had not seen many cases of listeriosis in the country, meaning it wasn’t a big health priority compared to all the other issues we have to deal with. For example, we saw 30,000 cases of malaria last year, rabies is a big concern, TB and many others were more severe,” says Thomas.
With hard work and vigilance, the outbreak was traced from Soweto.
Nine crèche kids under the age of five got ill and were admitted to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Tests revealed that they had been infected. A team went to the crèche the very day and found kids had eaten polony manufactured by Enterprise Foods, owned by Tiger Brands.
“We then visited the Enterprise Foods factory in Polokwane that makes this brand. We took over 28 samples and they tested positive for the outbreak strain. The conclusion from this is that the source of the present outbreak can be confirmed to be the Enterprise Food production facility in Polokwane,” she says.
On Sunday March 4, Motsoaledi ordered a safety recall of all products from Tiger Brands.
After Motsoaledi’s announcement, Tiger Brands shares fell more than 10% when the market opened on Monday.
“It is devastating for me that our business is linked to this outbreak… we detected low levels of listeria in our products on the 14th of February. We took immediate precautionary measures which included immediately halting production of the affected product, quarantining all affected product within our distribution center and withdrawing all affected products manufactured on that day,” says Tiger Brand CEO Lawrence MacDougall at a press briefing the next day.
MacDougall, however, controversially denied any responsibility for the deaths.
“There is no direct link with the deaths to our products that we are aware of at this point. Nothing… All of our tests and results indicate that we kept a very high standard of quality protocols within those sites. The expectations going forward is that those standards are significantly increased if there is going to be a zero detection of listeria going forward,” he says.
Motsoaledi argues that there is proof the ST6 strain was found at their facilities.
“The fact remains that we have had an outbreak of listeria, we informed them [Tiger Brands], in terms of fair administrative justice, that we got the results and we were going public with them. I don’t think they did enough to make sure their produce is safe for consumption by the public. I believe the best way is for this to be a civil case rather than a government case,” says Motsoaledi.
Renowned corruption buster and private forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan agrees. He is filing criminal charges against the board of Tiger Brands and has called upon them to step aside pending the outcome of the investigations.
O’Sullivan has teamed up with human rights lawyer Richard Spoor to bring charges.
“What is particularly shocking is that Tiger Brands, in its most recent annual report, placed product quality as number nine on the list of risks facing the company, when it should have been be at number one. We cannot think of a greater risk to the sustainability of any food company, than that of killing off your customers through recklessness or gross negligence. We are 100% certain that it will rank top of the list in next year’s annual report.”
What O’Sullivan finds completely unacceptable is that Tiger Brands is still in denial.
“On the one hand they close and deep-clean all the affected facilities, on the other hand they deny culpability and say they will meet each civil claim on its own merits, thereby indicating they will make it a long-haul for the litigants,” he says.
Gareth Lloyd-Jones, Chief Commercial Officer at hygiene and sanitation service provider Ecowize, however says government is to blame. He argues there should be a surveillance system that protects consumers.
“This type of rigorous investigation has been going on for the past couple of months, which is admirable, relevant and necessary and should have been part of a more robust routine surveillance and monitoring process in terms of food safety and legislation requirements,” he says.
According to retail analyst Syd Vianello, this can tarnish a brand that has spent decades trying to live up to high standards.
“How long is it going to take [Enterprise Foods] to convince consumers that the Enterprise brand is good for purchase again? We are talking about the value of the brand and the protection of the brand equity, insurance won’t even cover you for those kinds of losses. These can carry on for a very long time,” he says.
There is also a rub-off effect.
Ronald Dube, a manager at a supermarket in Johannesburg, says people have been returning all cold meats regardless of brand.
“People are afraid and have been returning all sorts of meat. We have also noted that sales of processed foods have gone down, no matter the brand,” he says.
Many people have also thrown away their cold meats but, according to Dr Johan Schoonraad, waste expert and group tactical specialist at EnviroServ Waste Management, there are only two options for disposing of listeria infected food waste – incineration or treatment and landfill disposal.
“The scale of the problem is too big for the incineration industry to deal with in any sort of reasonable timeframe, which leaves waste management companies with the option to do treatment and disposal to landfill,” he says.
Schoonraad says treatment can take many routes. You could sterilize the food waste, heating it and ensuring the material internally gets to 100 degrees which would kill the bacteria.
“If this was done, we could then landfill it without further treatment being required before disposal,” he says.
The other option is to chemically treat it prior to disposal.
According to Schoonraad, the problem is municipal landfills often have poor access control. The risk here, he says, is that the informal sector could enter and scavenge food material, which is then sold or eaten and could spread the disease.
“However, licensed hazardous waste sites have strict access control with no scavenging allowed at these facilities,” he says.
Nevertheless, South Africa remains in fear of this deadly disease.
Who is mostly at risk:
- Pregnant women
- Neonates (first 28 days of life)
- Very young infants
- Elderly persons >65 years of age
- Anyone with a weakened immune system (due to HIV infection, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, people with transplants and those on immunosuppressive therapy such as oral corticosteroids, chemotherapy, or antiTNF therapy for auto-immune disease)
Bill Gates Is Investing $100 Million In Alzheimer’s Research, Citing Family History
Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates joined the battle against Alzheimer’s disease on Monday, when he announced a $50 million investment in UK-based Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a venture capital fund. The investment is independent of his philanthropic work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates will follow up his initial investment with an additional $50 million to be doled out to start-up ventures working on Alzheimer’s research, he told Reuters.
Dementia is something personal to him. “My dad will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a couple weeks, a milestone that was practically unimaginable when he was born,” Gates, wrote in a post on his website, GatesNotes, on Monday. Gates did not say whether his father has dementia or not although he wrote that men in his family “have suffered from Alzheimer’s.” “Your risk of getting arthritis, Parkinson’s, or another non-infectious disease that diminishes your quality of life increases with each year. But of all the disorders that plague us late in life, one stands out as a particularly big threat to society: Alzheimer’s disease,” he added.
Although the number of studies investigating Alzheimer’s disease have grown in number over the past decade, scientists have not yet found a conclusive way to battle the disease, which is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S.. Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s, a rate expected to double by 2050, according to a 2016 study by the Alzheimer’s Association. For those who live into their mid-80s, there is a 50% chance of developing the disease, which causes decline in memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive skills, the nonprofit says. “That trend will likely continue as baby boomers age, which means that more families will watch their loved ones suffer from cognitive decline and slowly disappear,” Gates wrote in his post.
In addition to its emotional burden, the disease also results in significant economic costs for families, caregivers and healthcare systems. In 2011, 15.2 million Americans provided unpaid care for their loved ones valued at over $210 billion, an Alzheimer’s Association statement from 2013 concluded. The same statement said that Alzheimer’s expenditure will reach a total of $20 trillion over the next 40 years. Americans will spend $259 billion caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia just in 2017, according to the association.
The DDF, whose board includes the UK government as well as pharmaceutical giants like Biogen, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer, has already invested in 12 ventures fighting Alzheimer’s in both the UK and the U.S. since it was founded in 2015. “We welcome Bill Gates’ involvement as we collaborate to solve one of the biggest issues in global healthcare,” Kate Bingham of healthcare venture capital firm SV Health, which manages DDF, said in a statement.
Along with his wife Melinda Gates and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett, Bill Gates started the Giving Pledge in 2010 and committed to giving away more than half of his net worth in his lifetime. In October, he was unseated by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest person and will likely drop down the list in the near future, due to his philanthropic efforts.
“This is a frontier where we can dramatically improve human life,” the 62-year-old philanthropist said in a press release on Monday, “It’s a miracle that people are living so much longer, but longer life expectancies alone are not enough. People should be able to enjoy their later years – and we need a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s to fulfill that.” – Written by ,
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