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Chat about global health issues
We recently chatted with prominent health and medical journalist Philip J. Hilts, who discussed global health issues and the WGBH six-part series, "Rx for Survival," which premieres tonight. During his more than two decades at the New York Times and Washington Post, Hilts received three New York Times Publisher's Awards, and was nominated by the Post three times for the Pulitzer prize.

Philip_Hilts: This is Phil Hilts, I'm here in New York at the Global Health Summit, and I'm ready to answer questions.

robin: Mr. Hilts, In Africa and India, there are people in rural communities who fear vaccines, what is the best way to deal with this?

Philip_Hilts: In India and Africa, they have gone into the communities house to house and they've been successful in convincing peopple to accept the polio vaccine, as well as other vaccines. With person-to-person contact, it can be done.

patsfan: What is the greatest global health threat right now? Is it the avian flu that has been in the headlines lately?

Philip_Hilts: I guess it depends on what you mean by threat. First, there are many diseases that are here already that we can treat effectively, but are failing to do so. Such as malaria, TB, and HIV.

Philip_Hilts: On the other hand, if the avian flu takes off in humans, that could kill tens of millions in a single year. So there are two different kinds of threats, one already here, the other coming.

robin: Why do you think national governments are reluctant to invest much in AIDS Awareness?

Philip_Hilts: It's not high on the political agenda. And we seem preoccupied with other matters.

Philip_Hilts: If we want it to be higher on the agenda, it would be necessary to raise the awareness among the politicians by lobbying them.

Alice: Has enough research been done to determine the strength and weaknesses of the public health infrastructure in Africa?

Philip_Hilts: Yes, I think we know the strengths and weaknesses country by country, and in delivering aid, we sometimes have to go around the standing structure and deliver it through NGOs - non-governement organizations. For example, doctors without borders. In other cases, the governement's health programs are working well enough to deliver treatment through their clinics. It's country by country.

Joe_C.: What can the average US citizen do to help spread awareness of the vaccine distribution problem?

Philip_Hilts: I guess I don't know which problem we're talking about.

Philip_Hilts: We used to have seven manufacturers of vaccines in the US, we're down to one. Clearly, we have to invest more money in making vaccines, and doing vaccine research. President Bush announced today that he's going to put some money into that. But we'll se if it's enough.

alexk: Why such a drastic drop in vaccine manufacturers...what can we do to promote this industry in the private sector?

Philip_Hilts: The chief reason is that vaccines is not as profitable as regular medical drugs. So manufacturers have dropped out drasitcally. We need to find some ways to subsidize manufacturers, most industry experts think.

patsfan: What can I do to protect my family if something like the avian flu does cross over to humans? Philip_Hilts: When it crosses over, there will public service announcements on how to avoid catching it. But basically, it's just like catching a cold, or the regular flu. In other words, stay aware from crowds, wash your hands, stuff like that.

Joe_C: The vaccine distribution problem in Africa?

Philip_Hilts: There are groups to join that are working on these problems. You can also become a volunteer or donate money. And also, you can lobby your own members of Congress. In the back of my book, "RX for Survival," there is a list of web sites and addresses of organizations that are working on the issues and also accept volunteers.

EMK: There seems to be a lot of misinformation about the benefits of vaccinating children, even here in the US. Wht's driving the campaign not to vaccinate?

Philip_Hilts: I think the lack of knowledge of how vaccines work. And an exaggerated sense of the dangers. We need a good public health education campaign in areas where these issues come up, such as Vashon Island in Seatlle, where there is a population of peole that have refused to have their children vaccinated.

bobby: Based on your research, do you think weUll find an AIDS vaccine in your lifetime, or are the drug companies and government going to lose too much money?

Philip_Hilts: Yes, I think it's possible...maybe the odds are 50-50 we will have a vaccine. Because there are now one of two that are more promising than the ones we've had the past decade. I'm still hoping for one.

marla: I recently learned about the One Campaign on my campus and wondered what I can do to help spread the news of the problems in Africa. It seems like the media doesn't pay enough attention to this issue.

Philip_Hilts: I agree. American newspapers and broadcasters cover international issues very poorly, especially health issues. Some of us are making efforts to convince editors to devote more staff to these issues, and that may happen if we have something like avian flu for real.

EMK: Can kids who are not vaccinated go to schools, or are they all in private schools?

Philip_Hilts: in most places, children have to be vaccinated. But the rules are local, so there are probably places that don't enforce them.

BostonDotCom: That's all for our global health chat today. Thank you to Philip Hilts for joining us, and thanks to our readers for the questions. Have a great day.
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