Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was a practicing surgeon before his political career, announced last week that he would return to medicine—in a big way. The New York Times
reports that Frist will lead Save the Children’s
new “Survive to Five
” initiative. This program aims to reduce the number of children—estimated at nearly 10 million annually worldwide—who die before they turn five years old. Save’s
website describes five solutions to the five biggest contributing factors to child mortality. By applying these solutions—all of them proven, and most of them very inexpensive—they hope to save as many as 6 million children every year.
The Times mentions that other American politicians, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have dedicated much of their post-political lives to global health, with excellent results. Perhaps even more encouraging is that some current world leaders are addressing these issues as well. Last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed “urgent action” on health issues in developing countries. Their International Health Partnership, which began on September 5, will address child mortality, as well as maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS prevention and education.
The Times notes that Frist is playing a key role in a similar campaign with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with former rival Senator Tom Daschle—although it doesn’t mention that while majority leader, Frist broke with political tradition by campaigning against his counterpart. It is encouraging that they have put political differences behind them and are working together on a new campaign that could save and improve the lives of millions of children around the world. Hopefully, they will be successful in persuading Americans and their elected officials that child mortality is not only unacceptable and preventable, but that reducing it is a worthy use of taxpayer dollars.
This effort may seem daunting, given that less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. budget goes to international assistance. Frist was successful in ushering through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which dedicated $15 billion over five years to fighting AIDS, principally in Africa. This was a major victory for global health, but there is room in the budget and the priorities of American leaders for more global health programs—especially if PEPFAR is doubled, as is now being considered, to $30 billion over the next 5 years. Campaigns to reduce childhood mortality do not face the political scrutiny of HIV/AIDS programs such as PEPFAR, but it will still be important that Frist and others involved allow science-based medicine to dictate funding priorities; one of PEPFAR’s main failings is that it has caved to ideology in placing an unadvisedly large emphasis on abstinence education.
Frist and his colleagues certainly have a difficult battle against child mortality ahead of them. But Frist—a surgeon, politician, and businessman—has an impressive range of skills and an equally enviable Rolodex of supporters to call upon.