Sometimes in seeking solutions to big challenges, the simple things can be taken for granted.
I recall a meeting I attended several years ago. Johnson & Johnson’s Contribution Committee for Africa convened in Lusaka, Zambia to decide what strategies we would pursue to improve health care for the needy in Africa. It is an exotic location, home to Victoria Falls, called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders” in the Tonga language. Zambia is also famous for the giant rats that are used to find and clear landmines. (The rats proved to be a simple solution to clearing many square miles of mined countryside in Africa.)
But we were in a very ordinary hotel conference room that could have been just about anywhere.
We had chosen Lusaka because of efficiency. Many of our members would be there for the 2011 Congress of Surgeons in East Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA), as would Dr. Sunny Mante, a Ghanaian urologist with an outstanding program in hydrocele surgery for victims of lymphatic filariasis, a neglected tropical disease more commonly known as elephantiasis. Dr. Mante travels throughout West Africa teaching general surgeons how to diagnose and surgically treat this painful and debilitating disease. This would be an opportunity to update us on his work, funded by Johnson & Johnson and another partner organization called International Volunteers in Urology (IVUMED).
As the meeting went on, we were in the middle of a wide ranging discussion on what J&J products should be donated to support health care in Africa when Sunny arrived. I asked him if he could take a seat until we concluded. He, with his usual grace, agreed, and busied himself with his computer. I returned to the discussion.
We talked about blood glucometers and how they might help self-management of diabetes. We talked about laparoscopic surgery and how these complex endosurgical devices might shorten hospital stays. We discussed antibiotics, sterilizers and psychiatric medications. Then I saw Sunny put down his computer and rise to his feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said.
Dr. Mante is a slender man, but his voice took on great weight. “I ask that you do not forget the power of soap and water.”
We paused. Frankly, it took a moment for his words to sink in. It was one of those blessed “reset” moments when talkative people are struck silent and prepared to listen. We had been overlooking a crucial solution by taking soap for granted.
Dr. Mante told us that he had trained a group of surgeons in a regional hospital. He keeps meticulous records of their outcomes. This hospital was having below average results because of a high rate of post-operative infection even after retraining.
He told us how he was able to turn the results around. “I ordered that every patient be bathed with soap and water the night before surgery, and again in the morning before entering the operating theater. The infection rate quickly dropped to expected levels.” Dr. Mante paused and smiled quietly. “I am happy to hear you discussing these important products, but you also make soap. With soap, you can save many lives.”
Since that day, in addition to medicines, equipment and other products, Johnson & Johnson has indeed donated a great deal of soap. Not just to hospitals, but to school children in Kenya, expectant mothers in Ghana, and home based care providers in South Africa.
Right now, private enterprise has the power to deploy the greatest minds, R&D and other innovations to deliver access to care to the world’s most remote places. By resetting our thinking, we can work together to deliver products, develop partnerships, and help forge a path that leads to a healthier, more stable world.