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Global Health Summit Honors Heroes

A three-day summit on Global Health in New York (November 1st through 3rd) focused on malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS pandemics - and preparing for avian flu. But the summit also celebrated some shining lights - individuals who are finding innovative solutions to help victims of disease around the world.

Theirs are stories of human ingenuity.

In Zimbabwe, a former motorcycle racer and her husband built a fleet of motorbikes to use as ambulances on perilous roads across Africa. In Thailand, an economist championed condoms among prostitutes and headed off a potentially devastating outbreak of HIV/AIDS. In Nigeria, a young woman whose village ostracized her after she was raped at 13 and contracted HIV, founded an organization to help AIDS victims, opening her own home to the dying.

These are just some of the individuals the Global Health summit celebrated.

Mufaweza Khan of Bangladesh says she first became concerned about the fate of young girls when a beloved classmate failed to show up at school for two weeks. "Soon we found out that she has been given in marriage with an older man. Just a few years later we learned that she had died during childbirth. That event left me with a deep wound in my mind. I saw girls growing up with no purpose of life learning only the socially accepted values for women: servitude and sacrifice," she said.

Ms. Khan began helping women as a volunteer during the 1974 famine in Bangladesh, delivering cholera vaccines to people's homes. She found that poverty was often linked to large families.

Women, not permitted to travel, gave birth at home and could not be treated by male doctors. In 1976 she organized a tiny group of women to go door-to-door to encourage mothers to space their births and practice family planning.

Today her organization, Concerned Women for Family Development, has a staff of 600 serving two-million women. "Initially there were lots of problems. Because the husband and the mother-in law, the father-in-law, the family people, will think we are bad women going and spoiling their wives and daughters-in-law. But then working for 30-years we have gained the confidence of the community, now we do not have any problem. When we started we had few women working for us. Now the people come and want to work for us," she said.

As a young man in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Leon Kintaudi vowed to study medicine after watching his father die of appendicitis because there was no doctor available to help him.

He moved to the United States and earned his medical degree, but unlike many students from developing nations, he returned to his homeland. There he helped create a decentralized health care system, training doctors and clinicians to work in rural communities to make certain no one dies as his father did.

"I felt going back and help(ing) wherever I could just was a duty. I mean so many people have died for no reason when they maybe just needed a pill. So what I am doing right now is really using what I know from the United States, the friends I have here, to help back where I came from also," he said.

Most of these 18 heroes represent individual struggles to make changes. But that is not the case with Roy Vagelos, a former CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Pharmaceutical corporations are often criticized for not making their drugs available in poor countries because it's nopt lucrative enough. In 1987 Merck developed a drug to prevent river blindness, a disease that sounds like something out of a horror movie: Spread by the black fly, parasitic worms as long as 15 inches grow beneath the skin, causing terrible itching, inflamed eyes and eventually total blindness.

When Mr. Vagelos could not find any government sponsors to distribute the drug, he announced that Merck simply would give away the treatment to anyone who needed it. "The drug, when given as a single dose once a year, could eliminate this problem. So we had a drug that was almost magical. It would prevent blindness in millions of people. That was 1987. By 2004, in that one year, over 60-million people were treated completely free. It is the hope of Merck that this disease can be eradicated," he said.

Whether a corporation or a lone individual, what these heroes have in common is that their greatest power just may be the power of example