Interview with GAVI CEO Seth Berkley: Part 1

Last week, I sat down with GAVI’s CEO Seth Berkley while he was in DC. He had so much interesting stuff to say that we’ve broken our interview with him into 2 blog posts. Below, in our first installment, we talk about what defines success for GAVI, how GAVI’s work provides a platform for other health services, and what keeps him up at night.

Last week G8 leaders focused on agriculture, and this summer we’re coming up on a flurry of global health events including a child survival Call to Action and the International AIDS Conference. How does GAVI’s work fit into this picture?

First of all, immunization is the most cost-effective health intervention, so in a world of limited resources, we need to make sure we do immunization first to get the most bang for the buck. I see immunization as a cornerstone. What’s important about immunization is that we know we can get out and reach an entire population, so immunization can be a wedge to get into places that are otherwise very difficult to reach. That being said, as a public health person, I try to take a holistic view of the world, and of course you don’t want your child to be fully immunized only to die of starvation or to have HIV, so the challenge is to make sure there’s a basket of interventions that they have access to.

Are you worried that the space will get too crowded this summer in terms of media attention and public engagement for development issues?

I think this issue is difficult, because in a sense we’re swinging from one topic to another, and we know the media has a shorter attention span on these issues. One of the reasons ONE is such a powerful force is because it keeps the drumroll going on these issues even when there aren’t new tidbits of news. It’s very important to stay on message and keep the effort going. The other side of course is the resource side, and in times of great economic crisis, the challenge is to keep the resources flowing from donors for global health. But we also need countries to step up and invest more in their own people, their own social systems. Countries have made public commitments in the past to invest more in their health sector, and that’s critical as we move forward.

In the next few years for GAVI, what are you most excited about? What challenges keep you up at night?

The thing I’m most excited about is that now we have these powerful new vaccines that can make a huge impact in both child mortality and morbidity. Trying to get these vaccines out to everybody is really exciting. We also have a new vaccine against cervical cancer—the leading cancer killer of women in the developing world—and that’s a challenge because the vaccine is given to adolescent girls, but it’s an amazing opportunity because adolescents need targeted health interventions. They need to be educated about contraceptives, HIV transmission, STDs, and safe motherhood, and all of those issues need an opportunity for someone to intervene at a very critical time. If we can form a relationship with communities to deliver vaccines, there’s a great chance to build on it and create a platform for other interventions.
What keeps me up at night is the difficulty and the audacity of what we’re trying to do in the most difficult places of the world—the Somalias, the DRCs, the Afghanistans—and not only roll out a vaccine but also to get really high coverage rates. The challenge, then, is how we build the health systems that allow us to reach the most vulnerable, the most isolated, the most stigmatized.

We got a question for you via twitter from @OrinLevine, who asked how you define success for GAVI in the next 5 years.

The easy answer is that we have a business plan with transparent, measurable targets up on our website, so meeting those targets would be success. But going beyond that, we need to start really getting at the equity issue. We’re not going to solve it in five years, but I hope that we can make real progress on both equity and sustainability. If we can get the resources we need to do more, and also have countries devoting more of their own resources through co-financing to pay for long-term immunization, we’ll be even more successful.

Check back to the ONE blog on Tuesday, where we’ll share part 2 of our interview with Seth. I’ll ask him a few more personal questions about his most memorable travel, why he still considers himself a maverick, and his message for ONE members.

Photo Credit: Credit GAVI/2012/Olivier Asselin