The World Leaders forum is held every year to coincide with the UN General Assembly. Bwog will hop in and out of the forum throughout the week. On Monday night, Disease-free tag team Zach Kagan and Evelyn Warner hit up the Lance Armstrong opening event.
Lance Armstrong looked a little out of place among the doctors and global health experts that made up Monday’s World Leader’s Forum on preventing and Treating Noncomminicable Diseases in Developing Countries. In fact, throughout the event Armstrong had very little to say. CNN chief medical correspondent and moderator for this event, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, only asked one question of the cyclist, about his experience working with governments for his non-profit, Livestrong. In answering Armstrong said that the same year he took Livestrong global he also decided to bike again. “Only one was a good idea,” he quipped, and then after waiting a beat he added, “going global was the good idea.”
And that’s all Columbia really got out of Lance. The discussion itself was largely dominated by Harvard Medical School professors Paul Farmer and Lawrence Shulman. Sanjay Gupta started the discussion by going over some quite troubling statistics: 80% of all cancer deaths are in the developing world, killing more than AIDS, TB, and malaria combined. Gupta remarked that the assembled panel, “the A-Team of world health,” as he put it, would try to discuss how such problems could be addressed in the developing world.
Columbia professor Wafaa El-Sadr took on most of Gupta’s hard questions. She explained that the rise of NCDs (noncommunicable diseases) in the developing world is the result of increased fuel consumption, pollution, dietary changes, and a variety of other factors. El-Sadr advocated for a balance between treatment and prevention when developing strategies to combat NCDs.
The panel stressed that we cannot be discouraged by the herculean nature of this task. Dr. Shulman made it particularly clear that these diseases are no longer the illnesses of the affluent, and effective, economic treatments are available. 26 out of 29 chemotherapy medications are out of patent, so treatment can often be quite affordable, if the medications are supplied, that is. After Shulman finished Gupta cheekily asked him if Lance would be able to survive if he had cancer today in a country like Haiti. Nervously Shulman admitted that while Armstrong could get chemotherapy, the chance of successful neurosurgery in Port-au-Prince is unlikely.
But the most outrageous quotes of the forum belonged to Dr. Paul Farmer, who at one point in the discussion declared himself the “Lance Armstong of global health.” While answering a question about the necessity of vaccinations like Guardisil in preventing cervical cancer, Farmer nonchalantly claimed in the Republican presidential race “there are some diseases that there are no cures for.”
However despite his optimistic nature, Farmer had very little advice to offer the Columbia audience. When one student, shocked by a recent service trip to Haiti, asked him about how the average college kid could help forward the cause of global health, Farmer’s answer boiled down to just donating money, so that others can do the helping for you.
And so the 9th World Leader’s Forum starts off with a bit of a mixed bag. The panel was poised to portray the success of their international efforts, but it was disconcerting to watch Farmer and Shulman avoid hard questions. In Haiti and parts of Africa, where doctors are overwhelmed by the number of communicable diseases, let alone NCDs, where do the resources go? The panel’s consensus, that these arguments are secondary to actually helping people, leaves something to be desired. While it’s important to recognize success, downplaying the harsh realities helps no one’s cause. It seems all the platitudes didn’t interest Armstrong much, either. He may have drawn in the crowd, but the discussion didn’t give him much to shout about.
Photos by Evelyn Warner