Seth Berkley: A lifetime search for equity through vaccines

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My lowest point was the time when serious misunderstandings took place between local and international scientists at the beginning of KAVI” Dr Berkeley

My lowest point was the time when serious misunderstandings took place between local and international scientists at the beginning of KAVI” Dr Berkeley 

By Tabitha Mwangi

Posted  Sunday, August 14   2011 at  15:27

As a teenager in 1970s New York City, Seth Berkley had his first major moral epiphany.

The only child of middle class parents began to feel ill at ease with his comfortable life, while around him so many people had so little. The disparities were so deeply disturbing that during secondary school, Berkley volunteered in New York’s ghetto communities, teaching children chess, swimming and lifesaving instruction.

Seth Berkley would not have known that this youthful altruism would grow into a strong desire to confront inequalities on a global scale. The 55-year-old Dr Berkley, who founded the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, has this month taken the reins of another prominent organisation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi). Though he may not have planned it this way, Dr Berkley’s entire career has been a quest to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Eventually, his work achieved a clearly defined focus: The realm of vaccines and immunisation.

“I believe that vaccines are the most cost-effective and powerful tools for public health,” he explains. “The excitement about GAVI is the vision to ensure that all effective vaccines are available to all who need them, whether they live in the richest or poorest country.”

Joining GAVI

Dr Berkley joins GAVI at a time when it has secured $4.3 billion of funding in addition to its existing coffers. This money is committed to GAVI between now and 2015. As a result, a lot is expected of the new CEO. But the charismatic father of two appears ready to conquer any obstacles.

The East African interviewed Dr Berkley during the Pacific Health Summit in Seattle. The annual event, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and the National Bureau of Asian Research, brought together key stakeholders in vaccine research and development, as well as health policy.

While sharing details of his remarkable career, Dr Berkley’s passion for his work was palpable.

While at medical school in the late 1970s, he first visited Africa and later Brazil, where his interest in understanding diseases in the developing world began. After medical school, Dr Berkley worked as a resident in internal medicine in Boston. While there, he joined a medical team that called themselves “urban guerrillas” and took health care to homes of people with chronic illnesses.

“It was where I learned how to manage teams of doctors and nurses to improve patient outcomes. What is now common practice was then very new and exciting. It was while there that I honed my skills in population-based medicine,” Dr Berkley said.

After his residency, he joined the Atlanta-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and had an opportunity to return to Brazil at a time when a mysterious disease was killing children. He helped annalyse the new disease, which was named Brazilian Purpuric Fever. Later, Dr Berkley scientifically documented the great 1985 famine in Sudan.

‘The landscape of the refugee camps was dotted with the graves of children. I saw first-hand the lethal effects of repetitive measles outbreaks in malnourished children. It was an eye-opening experience,’ Dr Berkley said.

In 1987, former US President Jimmy Carter sent Dr Berkley to Uganda to work as an epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health. Dr Berkley’s job was to manage the child immunisation programmes in Uganda. While there, his attention was soon drawn to the Aids epidemic.

His team carried out the first survey in Africa to determine population levels of HIV infection. The results showed that 18.6 per cent of the population of Kampala was carrying the virus. Nationwide, 12.8 per cent of Ugandans were infected.

“When I saw the results, I thought they had put the decimal point in the wrong place,” Dr Berkley said. “Then I thought that perhaps the laboratory tests were wrong. Unfortunately, both were accurate and the enormity of the situation hit me.”

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