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Gates Foundation doctor discusses how partners helped to wipe out polio, meningitis from Africa at MUSC

Somalia Child Vaccines

Somali vaccination workers give an anti polio drop to a child, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Dr. Christopher Elias of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation explained to a group of South Carolina students Monday how close global partners are to eradicating polio on the African continent. File/Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

The Medical University of South Carolina attracts some of the heaviest hitters in global health to its campus this week, beginning with a speech Monday by Dr. Christopher Elias, a leader at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Elias, president of the Global Development Program at the foundation, kicked off a week of events at MUSC focusing on improving health care in the developing world. The "Our World, Our Health" series is sponsored by MUSC and will feature some of its experts. 

Monday, about 200 MUSC and Clemson students — and a group who conferenced into the room via video — gathered in an auditorium to hear Elias talk about polio and meningitis. 

Elias explained how simple solutions from the private sector have brought global health leaders close to ending polio and have brought down rates of meningitis.

For instance, health care workers in some African countries were facing a problem of expired polio vaccines. The vaccine must be stored at a certain temperature and the health care workers often could not tell if a vaccine had gone bad from being too warm.

An invention solved the problem by putting a label on the outside of the bottle that would turn purple when it became too warm, signaling that it needed to be thrown out.

"We could not achieve polio eradication if it weren't for this simple innovation," Elias said.

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There were no cases of polio in Africa last year, Elias said. The foundation hopes the continent can make it to three years without a case, at which point Elias said they could consider the disease to be eradicated.

Elias said the majority of the foundation's work is in global health. It aligns its objectives with those of the United Nations and other global health groups, including lofty goals such as ending extreme poverty and eradicating infectious disease.

Elias also touched on meningitis, and how partners around the world worked to make the vaccine available for less than 50 cents per dose. Prior to the vaccine's spread, meningitis would strike sub-Saharan Africa in the first part of the year, every year. The vaccine's affordability has prevented 1.3 million cases of meningitis, Elias said in his presentation. 

"It has stopped the public health system from shutting down for three months of every year, and it took away that financial drain," Elias said.

The work that remains to be done will be harder to accomplish than what has already been done, he said. Later, he fielded questions from staff and students.

Speakers this week will include experts from MUSC, USAID and Doctors Without Borders. On Wednesday, a speaker will discuss "soccer as a grassroots intervention to tackle HIV/AIDS."

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, is a reporter covering health care and technology for The Post and Courier's business desk. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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