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Aspen Spotlight Health 2018

Upon arriving at Aspen for the Spotlight Health conference this year, it was easy to see why the annual gathering - dubbed this year by The Spectator, irked by a tweet from David Miliband, as “the millionaires’ playground” - attracts some cynicism. Aspen was selected as the location for the institute by Walter Paepcke, who considered the sweeping mountains and ski lodges to be “an ideal gathering place for thinkers, leaders, artists, and musicians,” having used it as the location for a celebration of the 200th birthday of Goethe in 1949.

Thankfully, each session at Spotlight Health drew upon significant frontline health work and focused on real-life applicability. The tone of the whole conference was not one of complacency and self-satisfaction, but rather of urgency. The Johnson & Johnson Global Voices Scholars, a group I was delighted to be a part of, helped to burst any Aspen ‘bubble’ which may have otherwise existed. The scholars included an indigenous midwife from Canada, an HIV/AIDS awareness campaigner from Uganda and an obstetrician from Kenya. Each brought with them not only a powerful backstory, but specific advocacy angles which they successfully pushed at Aspen. I was, for instance, glad to have the opportunity to discuss the common water, sanitation and hygiene challenges faced by WBFA staff in Nigeria and by the obstetrician from Kenya – Dr Anthony Wanyoro, Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology department at the School of Health medicine, Kenyatta University.

A major theme at Aspen was the use of data and CRVS - civil registration and vital statistics, in particular its applicability for refugees and their families, and its importance in the context of the recent outbreak of Ebola in the DRC (if you didn’t get the chance to attend Devex World, it is well worth catching up on the data revolution session, not least as it featured the WBFA’s own Founder-President Toyin Saraki  discussing the link between data and increased agency of both midwife and mother). Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, pointed out that one third of the world’s children do not have birth certificates and are, therefore, not fully accounted for or acknowledged in national and global health decisions, or in a crisis situation (a problem which would, incidentally, be neatly solved by the digitisation and roll-out of the WBFA’s Personal Health Record…) The lack of reliable data about a populace was therefore a challenge in the recent battle to contain Ebola in the DRC – when assessing the need of a city, Dr. Berkley found that the most recent census was in 1980.


Former Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Frieden announced the launch of a new website to track and evaluate the preparedness of each nation’s response plan to infectious disease outbreaks. Whilst the analysis is sobering, the Resolve to Save Lives initiative has brought a smart tool to NGOs and Governments who are willing to engage with the Joint External Evaluation. The ‘Deep Dive’ into epidemic preparedness at Aspen can be watched in full here. 

Inevitably, given the political context and its location, there was a bias at Aspen towards the US healthcare debate, especially given the star turns by the US Surgeon General and Senator Cory Booker. At its best, however, Spotlight Health linked innovation at the frontline of healthcare to a universal desire for quality and wellbeing. Dr. Atul Gawande, in the closing plenary, spoke movingly about the difficult decisions he makes as a surgeon and the gradual, painful move towards a focus on the desired outcome of the patient. As Spotlight Health scholars pointed out time and again, a Nigerian, for instance, has the same wish for quality care as a US citizen – ‘access’ alone is not enough.

Jack Tunmore is Senior Adviser on Policy and Communications at the WBFA

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