This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.
Just 90 minutes. That’s all it took for some two dozen global leaders to commit to the goal of providing 100 million children with modern frontline health care over the next several years.
This extraordinary panel, chaired by Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez—which was but one of eight such working groups gathered in Rome and Vatican City on Friday and Saturday for the FORTUNE + TIME Global Forum—included the chief executives of eight major corporations, the heads of some of the most prominent charitable organizations in both the developed and developing world, several transformational business consultants and other wise souls. And it was clear they were here for action, not just talk.
The session began, though, with talk: a powerful framing of the health care landscape in the world’s poorest countries by Gary Gottlieb, the CEO of Partners in Health, the influential NGO cofounded by Paul Farmer. Though any specific panelist comments in our 90-minute planning session were off-the-record, there is nothing secret about the crisis: Four hundred million people across the globe lack even bare-bones medical care.
Sub-Saharan Africa, a region of endemic poverty, has 11% of the world’s population, 24% of the world’s burden of disease, and less than 5% of its health workforce, said Gottlieb. Seven in 10 of the world’s poor live in remote or rural areas, where access to medical services is sharply limited or not available at all: 5 billion people can’t reach or afford essential surgical care, from emergency caesarian sections to cancer surgery. And even as maternal deaths have dropped dramatically over the past quarter century, an estimated 830 women across the world still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Such dismal statistics notwithstanding, certain low-cost strategies have worked to alleviate this burden, at least somewhat. In poor rural areas, said Raj Panjabi, who runs the nonprofit organization Last Mile Health—and who just won the $1 million TED Prize for his innovative work in Liberia—training local villagers to be community health care workers can offer more bang for the buck than almost any other intervention. These front-line workers are a big reason why the deadly 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia was contained. (Adam Lashinsky has a nice write-up of my interview with Panjabi here.)
Vaccines are also critical to reducing preventable childhood deaths from pneumonia and diarrheal disease, which continue to take a terrible toll in Africa. But there was widespread agreement among the working group’s on-the-ground experts—including Panjabi; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Nigerian finance minister who now chairs Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International; and Andrew Youn of the One Acre Fund—that only a more comprehensive health strategy would make any real dent in childhood mortality.
So the group committed to making that a reality—working with their Global Forum colleagues and others in the private and nonprofit sectors to fund a corps of 750,000 community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa and other underserved rural areas of the globe. In addition to providing basic, everyday health services, these frontline caregivers will focus on trying to stop the most pointless of childhood deaths—those from vaccine-preventable diseases, treatable infections, and starvation.
The commitment, delivered in writing to His Holiness Pope Francis this past weekend, is just the start, of course. I will follow-up in these pages with reports on the progress toward that goal. As we said in our Global Forum, the business community has an opportunity now to reaffirm its social compact with the world. This is a good first step.