Health researcher to study effectiveness of foreign aid

- By Teal Pennebacker

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Eran Bendavid

The United States spends billions of dollars each year on international health programs, and Eran Bendavid, MD, wants to know how much wellness some of that money is buying.

Thanks to a $100,000 prize he’s receiving as the first recipient of the George Rosenkranz Award, the instructor of general internal medicine will spend the next two years figuring out whether the money going to HIV and malaria programs in sub-Saharan Africa has improved the overall health of children and their mothers.

The largest growth in U.S. funding of global health over the past decade has been directed toward programs that target specific diseases. But Bendavid, who is also an associate at the Stanford Center for Health Policy, said nobody knows whether these so-called “vertical programs” have combated broader problems like childhood illness, diarrhea and maternal deaths.

“There are a lot of concerns that vertical programs left other parts of the health-care system unattended,” said Bendavid, 36. “On the other hand, it is possible that the massive rise in U.S. health assistance to African countries — unprecedented in the history of development assistance for health — led to improvements in some health sectors. And the truth is that nobody has really sorted this out.”

Bendavid will examine the two largest American-funded vertical programs: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which started in 2003 and focused on 12 African countries; and the President’s Malaria Initiative, which started in 2005 and focused on 15 African countries.

He will assess whether these programs cut the rates of infant, child and maternal mortality and whether money was used for measles vaccinations and antenatal care.

“Basic health is closely linked to these countries’ well-being and potential for growth and development,” Bendavid said. “This research will allow U.S. policymakers to better understand if their support is contributing to the basic health care of some of the poorest nations.”

Bendavid hopes to use his research to bring the architects of President Obama’s global health initiative to Stanford to discuss future directions of foreign assistance for health. The United States spent $8.3 billion on international health programs last year, more than any other country.

The Rosenkranz Award, which is paying for Bendavid’s research, was created late last year to foster the research of a young Stanford scholar committed to improving health care in developing countries. Two dozen researchers applied for the award.

“The quality of the applicants was top-notch,” said biologist Donald Kennedy, PhD, co-chair of the Rosenkranz committee and president emeritus of Stanford. “Stanford has such an impressive array of global health research going on across disciplines, and the Rosenkranz applicant pool really confirmed this.”

Kennedy chaired the Rosenkranz committee with Alan Garber, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and director of health policy center. Other committee members included Michele Barry, MD, the medical school’s senior associate dean for global health; Jeffrey Koseff, PhD, a director of the Woods Institute for the Environment and professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Paul Yock, MD, professor of medicine and of bioengineering.

The Rosenkranz prize was created by the friends and family of George Rosenkranz, the scientist who helped first synthesize Cortizone in Mexico in 1951. Rosenkranz, who lives in Menlo Park, also synthesized the active ingredient for the first oral birth control and served as CEO of Syntex, a Mexican pharmaceutical company.

The award aims to incubate innovative, thoughtful research that reduces health disparities across the globe.

“George Rosenkranz was a key player in improving health care outcomes in developing nations,” Kennedy said. “We think this award is an ideal merging of his career aims with the Stanford global health vision of addressing grave health-care disparities.”

Teal Pennebaker is a communications officer for the Stanford Center for Health Policy.

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2024 ISSUE 1

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