Our mission is to solve humanitarian problems by mobilizing the resources and expertise of the global chemistry community and its networks. Read on to discover how a vaccine led to the creation of Chemists Without Borders and some of our work and challenges since that day.
The world’s best typhoid vaccine that no one wanted to make!
Chemists Without Borders was founded by Bego Gerber (myself) and Steve Chambreau in response to an article (“Carbohydrate Vaccines“) that was published in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) on August 9, 2004. I was appalled that there was an outstanding vaccine against typhoid fever sitting on the shelf not being utilized while over 10 million people around the World are infected with this terrible disease. The mortality rate (mostly children) for untreated typhoid is 12-30%; for treated, it is less than 1%. There were needs not being met, there were resources not being used. This prompted a letter to the editor which, to my surprise, was published (“An Ailing Cure“, C&EN, September 13, 2004) suggesting the creation of Chemists Without Borders to bring an end to such maldistribution. Here is what the original C&EN article said (9/8/2004):
“A conjugate they created with Vi polysaccharide from Salmonella typhi ’is the best typhoid vaccine that’s ever been made,’ Robbins says. ‘It’s the first that’s effective in two- to five-year-olds, and it probably will be effective in infants.’ Unfortunately, ‘vaccines don’t make much money,’ he adds. ‘The Vi conjugate vaccine is so revolutionary, and typhoid is such a common and serious disease around the world, but no manufacturer in the U.S. or Europe is interested in it.’
Joining the team—early days and lessons learned
There have been all sorts of lessons along the way since the vaccine led to the founding of Chemists Without Borders. Of the 150,000 or so American Chemical Society members who receive C&EN each week, only one person responded, Dr. Steve Chambreau. If I’d known the odds of the letter’s being published were 1 in 150,000, I probably wouldn’t have written the letter, and I doubt I’d have done anything further if Steve hadn’t joined me. Since then, of course, many other wonderful people like Steve have joined the team. The lesson? Things can happen on the thinnest of threads and just one thread may suffice, so keep stepping forward!
Steve and I had no directly relevant experience to guide us. Like so much of life, it’s largely guesswork. More and more wonderful, competent people joined the team. In the words of Lt Colonel (later General) James H. Doolittle, “There’s nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” True that! There have been many others dedicated to the mission of Chemists Without Borders. For instance, Dr Ray Kronquist, a physicist entrepreneur, put in long hours for over 5 years as president, and honor is due. Nowadays, our current, wonderful leadership team continues the work, expanding our efforts and developing new strategies.
Meanwhile, by the time we’d gotten our legal non-profit status as an NGO (non-governmental organization) thanks to the support of Lawyers Without Borders and pro bono law firms, the original typhoid vaccine was being manufactured in India. Nevertheless, another lesson was that all over the world there are solutions sitting on shelves waiting to be applied to meet great needs. So much has already been accomplished by others that there are great opportunities to learn from and replicate their achievements.
Other projects—Arsenic in drinking water
The other project that grabbed our attention early on was about arsenic in drinking water and food. This is a problem around the world where over 600 million people are exposed, even in the USA. Some of that exposure is from mining and industrial work but in places in and around the Indian sub-continent, indeed any country that gets its water from the Himalayas, including China, arsenic occurs naturally in the ground and in drinking water. Bangladesh is more exposed than any other country, with over 70 million people at risk. Mitigating work done by others has reduced that number to perhaps 30 million people exposed, still a huge number. Our chemistry education project in Bangladesh teaches teachers and high school students how to test for arsenic and what to do about it. The enthusiasm of students for making a real, practical difference in their communities is very heartening. There’s no shortage of problems to solve. One of the key lessons is that the work must be done in collaboration with villagers or others whom we intend to help. You wouldn’t want an old Scotsman coming in saying, “We’re here to help.” We must work with and at the behest of the local communities.
Will you join us?
Most recently, I’ve been promoting a 2-minutes-a-day idea. According to the International Labour Organization, there are about 20 million people involved in the chemical enterprise worldwide. Imagine the impact if even 1% of us were to spend an average of 2 minutes a day thinking and acting anew on humanitarian solutions. That is an opportunity hard to ignore. We welcome people of all backgrounds because what we do is much less about chemistry than it is about people and relationships. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities to spend more than two minutes a day!