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Carter Center News and Publications - Gates Award for Global Health Speech

William H. Gates, Sr.

Presenter of the Gates Award for Global Health

It is a joy to give this speech every year.

With millions of people in the developing world dying from preventable diseases, the story of global health is usually told in somber tones. So it is a delight to recognize an organization that is solving seemingly intractable health problems.

As you saw in that beautiful video, the Carter Center has brought peace, health, and hope to people in more than 65 countries.

And its founders, President and Mrs. Carter, have urged the world to really see the tremendous human suffering caused by sickness and disease.

Which is also the mission of the Global Health Council - to focus the world's attention on the health of the world's poorest people.

Both the Carter Center and the Global Health Council should take pride in the progress they've made. They started a lonely fight against the diseases of the developing world decades ago, and now it has been joined by more people and more nations than ever before.

In 2002, my wife, Mimi, and I had the privilege of traveling to Africa with President and Mrs. Carter to help bring attention to the AIDS crisis.

I knew the President by reputation as a leader of great moral courage and conviction. But I learned right away that he combines his boundless compassion with a very hard-headed sense of what it takes to get results.

I'll never forget the Sunday morning where Nigeria's President Obasanjo had invited President Carter to deliver a sermon at a church in Abuja.

Using the Bible as his text, President Carter made an extraordinarily forthright speech about AIDS prevention - about sex and condoms. President Carter's faith is at the center of all the work he does, and he was compelled by that faith to give probably the most nitty-gritty public health advice ever delivered from the pulpit.

The same spirit motivates the Center's director, Dr. John Hardman, and the more than 500 talented people all over the world who do its work. They all share an absolute devotion to easing people's suffering and a pragmatic approach to getting the job done.

The Carter Center was founded in 1982 with an ambitious mission: to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering.

To fulfill this mission, the Center wages peace where people aren't safe. It promotes democracy where people aren't free. And it fights disease where people aren't well.

These are diseases that the rest of the world has ignored - diseases such as trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world, and lymphatic filariasis, a crippling parasitic disease that infects more than 100 million people.

The Carter Center is best known for spearheading the campaign to wipe out Guinea worm.

Since 1986, when the Center took up the challenge of eradicating the disease, the number of people infected with Guinea worm has decreased by more than 99 percent, from 3.5 million to less than 11,000 last year.

By 2009, the disease will be fully eradicated, and people will no longer live in fear of the misery it brings.

Guinea worm is an excruciating and terrifying disease. People get it by drinking water contaminated with larvae. Inside the human body these larvae grow into worms up to three feet long, and after a year, they slowly and painfully emerge through searing blisters in the person's skin.

Because the disease's victims are incapacitated for several months at a time, Guinea worm's effects ripple through community life, keeping children away from school and farmers away from the fields.

To eradicate Guinea worm, the Carter Center brought in a leader of the highest caliber: Dr. Donald Hopkins, without whom none of this progress would have been possible. Under his guidance, the Center has taken an unusual approach to fighting disease: it has helped endemic countries and afflicted villages develop the resources to do the job themselves.

In order to do that, the Carter Center works hand in glove with ministries of health. In fact, it often has its people actually working out of the ministries, helping to coordinate national programs. These national programs train volunteer health workers in thousands of villages. And it is these village volunteers who are mainly responsible for stopping Guinea worm.

The fight against Guinea worm is about as low-tech as it could be. The goal is making sure people don't drink contaminated water, which can mean building wells to protect water at its source, treating water to kill the fleas that carry the larvae, or filtering the water. One of the most effective tools is this little gadget.

It's called a pipe filter, but it looks like a piece of jewelry, and it acts like a portable water purification plant. It's not much more than a fancy straw, but it has a fine screen here at the bottom that filters out fleas. With a pipe filter, anyone can drink from any water source, and it's safe. The Carter Center has handed out millions of these in Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Sudan.

Another simple weapon against Guinea worm is this hat. It has a mesh top that acts as a filter. Strain contaminated water through this hat, and it's not contaminated anymore.

But no matter what tools are used, the key to eradication is education. The health volunteers in the villages teach people about how the disease spreads and how to avoid getting it.

We all know there are critics who despair that people in the developing world are too incompetent or corrupt to take care of themselves. The Guinea worm effort has proved them wrong. In village after village, it is the people at the grass roots who have moved themselves and their countrymen to the verge of eradicating an ancient disease.

The River Blindness Control Program is another inspiring example of how the Carter Center empowers local people.

River Blindness infects more than 17 million people worldwide. Spread by small black flies that breed in rivers, it causes incessant itching, impaired vision, and, in the worst cases, total loss of vision.

Working with the Carter Center, Uganda is one country that has conquered this disease. More than 90 percent of Ugandans get annual drug treatments to prevent it. The drugs are provided free by Merck Pharmaceuticals, and they are distributed through a system devised by another Carter Center hero - Dr. Moses Katabarwa.

Dr. Katabarwa pioneered the use of kinship groups in Uganda's River Blindness campaign. He realized that training Ugandans to treat people within their kinship groups promoted trust and improved care. The country used its social structure to alleviate suffering and save more people's eyesight.

The power of the Carter Center's global health work is evident in stunning statistics - the 99 percent decrease in Guinea worm and the more than 70 million treatments for River Blindness.

We can also see it in the stories of individuals who are learning that they no longer have to be sick and ashamed.

A few years ago, a Carter Center team visited a village in Togo where a woman named Karamoua and her six children were wincing in pain as more than 20 worms were pulled from their bodies.

Later, a local health volunteer asked Karamoua what she knew about Guinea worm. She answered, "Nothing," and then she started to cry.

Karamoua said: "I have prayed every day to know what I did to bring this disease into my family and my village. The sores just fell upon us," she said.

The volunteer began to explain the disease to Karamoua and her children. Using an illustrated book, he showed her how people get infected by the worm, and how it can be prevented with the proper precautions.

Karamoua began to cry again, but this time, she cried tears of joy. She cried because she knew she could protect her children in the future.

Thanks to the Carter Center, Karamoua's story is the story of millions of people throughout the world.

President Carter is unable to be here tonight, but it is fitting that I present the Gates Award in Global Health to John Moores, the Chairman of the Board of the Carter Center. Like President Carter, John Moores is a leader with a passion for eradicating disease and the know-how to get it done.

The story goes that John first heard about River Blindness on a Monday, and he'd set up the River Blindness Foundation by that Friday. Just two years ago, he gave $4 million to the Scripps Institute to develop a method of detecting the adult worms that cause River Blindness, which we can't reliably do right now.

So for its passionate, pragmatic, and revolutionary work to eradicate some of the world's most devastating diseases, it gives me great pleasure to present the Gates Award for Global Health to the Carter Center and the Chairman of its Board, John Moores.

Read Carter Center press release on 2006 Gates Award for Global Health >>

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