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Five Favorite Global Health TED Talks

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of TED, the renowned conference and resulting website that distribute “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” For FSGers, an inherently curious bunch, it’s like intellectual candy – we’re even planning our own internal lunchtime TED talks series. And as a new member of FSG, I’ve found it to be an enormously useful tool for staying on-trend for our diverse issue areas. Over the past few months, I’ve been gaining expertise on global health: the players, the macro trends, the innovations and the challenges. I want to share with you five terrific TED talks on Global Health that I’ve come across.

1. Hans Rosling, No More Boring Data 

Rosling’s talk was the first TED video I ever saw, and got me hooked on TED way back in college. With sharp wit and rapid-fire delivery, he shows how Westerners’ preconceived notions of global health and development can stunt the effectiveness of health interventions. An especially important insight comes around the fourteen-minute mark, when he notes the problem of using average data for countries when there is such variation within countries. When Rosling explodes Uganda’s GDP per capita into quintiles, and points out the importance of designing strategies for health access with a strong sense of context, you can’t help but nod your head in agreement.

2. Elizabeth Pisani, Sex, Drugs and HIV – Let’s Get Rational
“People do stupid things – that’s what spreads HIV.” Pisani starts the talk by saying that her own quote is only half-true – people get HIV from doing stupid things for perfectly rational reasons. Her ruthless take-down of our preconceived notions of what is rational for addicts and prostitutes completely reframes these destructive behaviors. Listen mid-way through for her discussion of the “compassion conundrum,” in which donors have trouble funding prevention for those engaging in risky behaviors, but easily open their wallets (for much more expensive interventions) once those individuals become AIDS victims. Pisani’s plea for political action at the end of the video should be a call-to-arms for the funding community to engage in advocacy and lobbying for policies that better serve those at risk for HIV.

3. Seth Berkley, HIV and Flu – The Vaccine Strategy
If Pisani shows us today’s behavioral approach to preventing HIV infection, Berkley shows us tomorrow’s vaccine approach to eliminating it altogether. He makes the case that vaccines for all kinds of ailments will be the key to preventing a massive global pandemic, and through the sheer force of his knowledge and persuasion makes it seem possible. This talk, though technical, carefully walks you through how vaccines are designed, produced, and distributed, and is a can’t-miss for new students of global health.

4. Bruce Aylward, How We’ll Stop Polio for Good
Aylward’s talk makes a moral, financial, and scientific case for ending polio forever. Watch at the end for a Q&A cameo by Bill Gates, who has also called for the eradication of the disease. In recalling terrible images of the polio epidemic, Aylward reminds us how we now take for granted the vaccine that changed the world. His earnest pleas to close the funding gap that will enable final treatment and eradication should be heeded by the global health funding community, and lessons learned from polio applied to the next horrific disease. In conjunction with the other talks on this list, he gets you dreaming about another TED talk, maybe thirty years from now, by some unknown scientist, about the final eradication of a disease that terrorizes us today.

5. Ernest Madu, Bringing World-Class Health Care to the Poorest
Much of FSG’s recent work in global health has focused on the disease burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in developing countries: chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Madu makes a forceful and impassioned argument that NCDs can no longer be ignored in the developing world, and does one better by showing exactly how his Heart Institute of the Caribbean provides world-class health care at a lower cost than peers in the US. Smart design and superior technology are keys to his success. Madu exemplifies the increasingly bi-directional innovation trend in global health, of innovations arising in the developing world that are spread back to the developed world.