Gates Foundation
Gates Foundation

Myth-Busting Poverty and Health

Gates Foundation
Gates Foundation

When bad things happen, they often happen fast. When good things happen, they often happen slowly—sometimes so slowly that we only notice them after the fact.[1] This is certainly the case with how we think about the state of our world; we see some catastrophe on the news and think that the net effect is that the world is trending downward. We tend not to do the homework required to reflect on the slow, positive changes that come after years of hard work. In today's Gates Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates make a convincing argument that, in many ways, the world is better than it has ever been. I agree. Life ain't perfect, but suffering and death are decreasing.

When I write about the slow, good news, the comments sections are fascinating. While many comments are positive, there are some persistent negative assertions that come up over and over—what's fascinating is that they're factually incorrect, but them apparently feel correct to the people who are writing them. Let's call these "myths about helping people," and let's take a rational look at why a big one simply isn't supported by the facts.

Myth: Foreign Aid is a Big Waste

First let's define "foreign aid": "a voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another." This generally means a relatively richer country giving money or goods to a relatively poorer country.

So the myth here is a many-headed hydra; at its core is a hunch that it's a waste of resources to give money to another country. Let's walk through this one and look at some data:

1. Cutting foreign aid would not save donor countries much money

One argument against foreign aid is simply that is costs too much. But foreign aid actually amounts to a tiny fraction of government spending. When we look at the economic assistance donor countries provide, it's in the low single digits of the overall budget. Norway is the most generous country in the world in this regard, and it spends a whopping 3% of its annual budget on foreign aid. The United States spends less than 1% on economic foreign aid—that's roughly $30 billion. About $11 billion of that is spent on health care (medication, disease prevention, bed nets, etc.). This last figure pencils out to about $30 per person, per year, in the U.S. on average.

So the fact is, at least in the United States, that we're talking about less than 1% of the budget. We can save less than 1% of our budget, or we can save lives around the world.

2. Foreign aid actually helps people

Another argument against foreign aid is that it's wasted—it doesn't help people, and instead ends up in the pockets of corrupt governments. While, yes, there is corruption in the world, here are three examples of organizations that receive money from U.S. tax dollars, and what that money has done to help staggering numbers of people:

GAVI - Has vaccinated 440 million children against various diseases since 2000. By 2015 this number is projected to increase by another 234 million. This means kids are protected from diseases like polio, measles, rotavirus, yellow fever, and the list goes on. Why this matters: By 2015, GAVI will have vaccinated 50 million children against rotavirus. Rotavirus causes an estimated 450,000 deaths each year.

The Global Fund - Has treated 11.2 million cases of TB; provided antiretroviral drugs to 6.1 million people; and has distributed 360 million insecticide-treated nets (these are used to prevent malaria) since 2002. Why this matters: In 2000, only 3% of households in sub-Saharan Africa owned at least one insecticide-treated mosquito net. Now, 54% of households own at least one net. If malaria deaths continue to drop at the current rate, by 2015 malaria mortality will have dropped by 56% compared to 2000.

Polio Global Eradication Initiative - Has vaccinated 2.5 billion children against polio since 1998. Why this matters: In 1981, there were 350,000 new cases of polio. In 2013 there were just 385.

While some foreign aid money has been siphoned off by corrupt governments, that is not an argument against foreign aid in general—it's an argument about how we should spend the money so that it actually helps people. (See above for examples.)

3. Foreign aid reduces infant mortality...and that's a big deal

Another old saw is that foreign aid may help in the wake of disasters, but it doesn't substantially affect the biggest problems affecting humanity. Here's data to disprove that one.

If you compare today to the year 2000, there are now 7,256 fewer children dying every single day. If that doesn't seem like a big deal, read it again, or think of it this way—there are 2.56 million fewer infant deaths each year compared to the year 2000. If you're a parent, consider the 7,256 families that today did not have to contend with the death of their child.

And this progress isn't just recent—it has been sustained in a slow march over decades. According to the World Bank, "In 1990, more than 12 million children in developing countries died before the age of 5 from diseases such as diarrhea, malnutrition, pneumonia, AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. By 2012, that number had dropped to 6.6 million."

Reducing infant mortality isn't just about reducing heartbreak for parents; children who do not die grow up to be adults. These adults are the next generation of workers. Having a healthy, working adult population is a key way that countries develop on their own. (Note: there is also an intriguing correlation between reducing infant mortality and reducing fertility rates—it appears that when infant mortality goes down, people tend to have fewer children. If you're concerned that overpopulation will result if we save kids' lives, please consult Myth #3 in the Annual Letter.)

4. Foreign aid is an investment

It's easy to look at foreign aid as money that's spent each year with no financial return, a kind of static handout. But if you actually look at what this money buys (aside from preventing death), the return is tremendous. Take polio eradication—there are only three countries left in the world (Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan) where polio is endemic. Once polio is fully eradicated, we'll save $2 billion each year spent on polio. This is simple: eradicating disease will save money in the long term, both for donor countries and for countries where the disease had a financial impact.

Another reason foreign aid is an investment is that countries receiving foreign aid develop their way out of needing it, and can themselves become providers of aid. This is already happening. Here's a list of countries that formerly received huge amounts of foreign aid, but today receive very little: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia. (You can explore the data on a country-by-country basis over time.) Even more interesting, there's a set of countries that are now net donors (meaning that they give more than they receive); these include South Korea and China. India may soon join this list, as it now receives just 0.09% of its GDP in foreign aid (down from 1% in 1991); India currently gives money to Bangladesh and others.

The bottom line

While there are certainly inefficiencies in the way foreign aid money is spent, it's clear that this aid saves millions of lives. For many countries, foreign aid is currently the only way to reduce infant mortality. To quote Bill Gates:

"A baby born in 1960 had an 18 percent chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, the odds are less than 5 percent. In 2035, they will be 1.6 percent. I can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in human welfare that would even come close."

Share Your Thoughts, and Bust Your Own Myths

Above, I dealt with just one of three big myths tackled in today's letter. I urge you to read the rest, and if you feel moved to do so, share the myths that irk you the most. (On Twitter, a handy hashtag is #stopthemyth.) As I've done above, it helps to show your work, so we're dealing with data.

1 = A note on this notion that bad things happen fast and good things happen slowly. I'm not the first person to make this observation; Gordon Livingston wrote a similar sentiment about family life: "Only bad things happen quickly, ... Virtually all the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues."

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
Essential Science
How Are Vaccines Made?
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Vaccines have long been hailed as one of our greatest public health achievements. They can be made to protect us from infections with either viral or bacterial microbes. Measles and smallpox, for example, are viruses; Streptococcus pneumoniae is a bacterium that causes a range of diseases, including pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and meningitis. Hundreds of millions of illnesses and deaths have been prevented due to vaccines that eradicated smallpox and significantly reduced polio and measles infections. However, some misunderstanding remains regarding how vaccines are made, and why some scary-sounding ingredients [PDF] are included in the manufacturing process.

The production of our vaccines has greatly evolved since the early days, when vaccination was potentially dangerous. Inoculating an individual with ground-up smallpox scabs usually led to a mild infection (called "variolation"), and protected them from acquiring the disease the "regular" way (via the air). But there was always a chance the infection could still be severe. When Edward Jenner introduced the first true vaccination with cowpox, protection from smallpox became safer, but there were still issues: The cowpox material could be contaminated with other germs, and sometimes was transmitted from one vaccinated person to another, leading to the inadvertent spread of blood-borne pathogens. We’ve come far in the last 200 years.

There are different kinds of vaccines, and each requires different processes to move from the laboratory to your physician's office. The key to all of them is production of one or more antigens—the portion of the microbe that triggers a host immune response.


There are several methods to produce antigens. One common technique is to grow a virus in what's called a cell culture. Typically grown in large vats called bioreactors, living cells are inoculated with a virus and placed in a liquid growth medium that contains nutrients—proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, essential minerals—that help the virus grow in the cells, producing thousands of copies of itself in each infected cell. At this stage the virus is also getting its own dose of protective medicine: antibiotics like neomycin or polymyxin B, which prevent bacterial and fungal contamination that could kill the cells serving as hosts for the virus.

Once a virus completes its life cycle in the host cell, the viruses are purified by separating them from the host cells and growth media, which are discarded. This is often done using several different types of filters; the viruses are small and can pass through holes in the filter that trap larger host cells and cell debris.

This is how "live attenuated vaccines" are created. These vaccines contain viruses that have been modified so that they are no longer harmful to humans. Some of them are grown for many generations in cells that aren't human, such as chicken cells, so that they have mutated to no longer cause harm to humans. Others, like the influenza nasal mist, were grown at low temperatures until they lost the ability to replicate in the warmer temperatures of the lungs. Many of these vaccines you were probably given as a child: measles, mumps, rubella ("German measles"), and chickenpox.

Live attenuated vaccines replicate briefly in the body, triggering a strong—and long-lasting—response from your immune system. Because your immune system kicks into high gear at what it perceives to be a major threat, you need fewer doses of the vaccine for protection against these diseases. And unlike the harmful form of the virus, it is extremely unlikely (because they only replicate at low levels) that these vaccines will cause the host to develop the actual disease, or to spread it to other contacts. One exception is the live polio vaccine, which could spread to others and, extremely rarely, caused polio disease (approximately one case of polio from 3 million doses of the virus). For this reason, the live polio virus was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Scientists use the same growth technique for what are known as "killed" or "inactivated" vaccines, but they add an extra step: viral death. Inactivated viruses are killed, typically via heat treatment or use of a chemical such as formaldehyde, which modifies the virus's proteins and nucleic acids and renders the virus unable to replicate. Inactivated vaccines include Hepatitis A, the injected polio virus, and the flu shot.

A dead virus can't replicate in your body, obviously. This means that the immune response to inactivated vaccines isn't as robust as it is with live attenuated vaccines; replication by the live viruses alerts many different types of your immune cells of a potential invader, while killed vaccines primarily alert only one part of your immune system (your B cells, which produce antibodies). That's why you need more doses to achieve and maintain immunity.

While live attenuated vaccines were the primary way to make vaccines until the 1960s, concerns about potential safety issues, and the difficulty of making them, mean that few are attempting to develop new live attenuated vaccines today.


Other vaccines aren't made of whole organisms at all, but rather bits and pieces of a microbe. The combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—all at once—is one example. This vaccine is called the DTaP for children, and Tdap for adults. It contains toxins (the proteins that cause disease) from diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus bacteria that have been inactivated by chemicals. (The toxins are called "toxoids" once inactivated.) This protects the host—a.k.a. you, potentially—from developing clinical diphtheria and tetanus disease, even if you are exposed to the microorganisms. (Some viruses have toxins—Ebola appears to, for example—but they're not the key antigens, so they're not used for our current vaccines.)

As they do when developing live attenuated or inactivated vaccines, scientists who create these bacterial vaccines need some target bacteria to culture. But because the bacteria don't need a host cell to grow, they can be produced in simple nutrient broths by vaccine manufacturers. The toxins are then separated from the rest of the bacteria and growth media and inactivated for use as vaccines.

Similarly, some vaccines contain just a few antigens from a bacterial species. Vaccines for Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and Neisseria meningitidis all use sugars that are found on the outer part of the bacteria as antigens. These sugars are purified from the bacteria and then bound to another protein to enhance the immune response. The protein helps to recruit T cells in addition to B cells and create a more robust reaction.

Finally, we can also use genetic engineering to produce vaccines. We do this for Hepatitis B, a virus that can cause severe liver disease and liver cancer. The vaccine for it consists of a single antigen: the hepatitis B surface antigen, which is a protein on the outside of the virus. The gene that makes this antigen is inserted into yeast cells; these cells can then be grown in a medium similar to bacteria and without the need for cell culture. The hepatitis B surface antigen is then separated from the yeast and serves as the primary vaccine component.


Once you have the live or killed viruses, or purified antigens, sometimes chemicals need to be added to protect the vaccine or to make it work better. Adjuvants, such as aluminum salts, are a common additive; they help enhance the immune response to some antigens by keeping the antigen in contact with the cells of the immune system for a longer period of time. Vaccines for DTaP/Tdap, meningitis, pneumococcus, and hepatitis B all use aluminum salts as an adjuvant.

Other chemicals may be added as stabilizers, to help keep the vaccine working effectively even in extreme conditions (such as hot temperatures). Stabilizers can include sugars or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Preservatives can be added to prevent microbial growth in the finished product.

For many years, the most common preservative was a compound called thimerosal, which is 50 percent ethylmercury by weight. Ethylmercury doesn't stick around; your body quickly eliminates it via the gut and feces. (This is different from methylmercury, which accumulates in fish and can, at high doses, cause long-lasting damage in humans.) In 2001, thimerosal was removed from the vaccines given in childhood due to consumer concerns, but many studies have demonstrated its safety.

Finally, the vaccine is divided into vials for shipping to physicians, hospitals, public health departments, and some pharmacies. These can be single-dose or multi-dose vials, which can be used for multiple patients as long as they're prepared and stored away from patient treatment areas. Preservatives are important for multi-dose vials: bacteria and fungi are very opportunistic, and multiple uses increase the potential for contamination of the vaccine. This is why thimerosal is still used in some multi-dose influenza vaccines.

Though some of the vaccine ingredients sound worrisome, most of these chemicals are removed during multiple purification steps, and those that remain (such as adjuvants) are necessary for the vaccine's effectiveness, are present in very low levels, and have an excellent track record of safety.


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