Pacific Health Summit Vies to Make Seattle the “Davos” of Global Health

Everybody can relax. Bono and Angelina Jolie won’t be here. At least not this year. But some of the biggest names in science, global health, and business will gather in Seattle today for the Pacific Health Summit, to brainstorm about the world’s thorniest emerging health problems.

Key decision makers from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, and the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust (the world’s second-biggest health philanthropy behind you-know-who) will mingle with executives from Microsoft, Merck, and GE Healthcare, among others.

The summit’s founders, Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and George Russell, the chairman emeritus of Russell Investments and creator of the Russell 2000 stock index, will be there too.

The conference, in its fourth year, is invitation-only and limited to about 250 people. Like the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland, it’s located in a setting with beautiful views of mountains and water, at the Bell Harbor Conference Center at Pier 66. The agenda is sprinkled with plenary sessions, small group talks, and time for one-on-one conversations.

It isn’t just all talk or wishful thinking. Last year, WHO director Margaret Chan outlined the threat of an avian flu pandemic, and London-based GlaxoSmithKline (the world’s second-largest drugmaker after Pfizer) listened, donating 50 million doses of vaccine for an emergency stockpile.

This year’s theme is about global malnutrition, basically what happens to public health when people eat too much cheap junk food with few nutrients, or not enough food with nutrients they need. As market forces lift millions out of poverty in places like China and India (a positive thing, obviously), many people are adopting the more sedentary Western lifestyle that leads to obesity and diabetes (a negative and very expensive problem).

If current economic growth trends continue in India, a country with more than 1 billion people, the demand for insulin for diabetics alone could be enough to swallow up the nation’s entire healthcare budget in 20 years, said Michael Birt, the summit’s executive director. Attendees want to brainstorm ways to harness market forces to prevent that from happening. They don’t want to be in the position of begging Eli Lilly or Novo Nordisk to donate insulin for needy diabetics. Summit attendees would rather find ways to invest in early childhood nutrition to prevent the problem in the first place, Birt said.

“We’re not just talking about sending a plane full of food over and thinking that will solve the problem,” Birt says. “Having a sustainable business is important. We want this to happen over decades.”

By getting the right people in the same room together—in a relaxed atmosphere, and at a moment in time when food prices are rising—the summit might just generate a few bright ideas.

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