A World Health Day after a pandemic year

World Health Day is celebrated annually on April 7. Since 1950, the goal of this celebration is to “create awareness of a specific health theme,” which is a priority for the World Health Organization (WHO). In previous years, the WHO used this day to focus on health issues such as mental health and child care. 

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Over the past year, the effects of Covid-19 have been felt in different ways across the globe. The effects of the pandemic are not measured only by casualties and hospitalisations, but also through economic effects and the capacity of different countries to respond to a global event of this magnitude. This year’s World Health Day will focus on the goal of building a healthier world for everyone.

In commemoration of World Health Day, we would like to highlight innovations in the health world, whose goal is to create a better health trajectory for everyone.

Rapid Covid-19 tests

Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) one-shot Covid-19 vaccine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late February 2021, and two weeks later approved for use in Europe. It became the third US company to create a vaccine for the pandemic, joining Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines had been approved a few months earlier.

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Johnson & Johnson was also on the front line regarding Covid-19 testing. In June 2020, Cue Health, a diagnostic startup in which JNJ had invested, became one of the earliest innovators to create a rapid Covid-19 test. Their rapid test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, was able to deliver results in approximately 20 minutes. 

However, the test did not come in a vacuum.

Recognising that cities worldwide have become ecosystems for innovation, JNJ is looking to tap into that potential through its Innovation Centers for life sciences and JLABS, the latter, which is the company’s global network of incubators. Their purpose is to create collaboration between the company and entrepreneurs developing new pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other healthcare products.

JNJ had been invested in, and collaborating with Cue Health for a few years. When the pandemic hit, Cue Health was in the final stages of clinical approval for its home influenza detection test, and it immediately switched focus to create a rapid Covid-19 test.

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Preventative Healthcare

If you are young and want to take care of your health, you might consider eating healthily, exercising, and avoiding habits that can lead to illnesses, such as smoking or heavy drinking. If you get sick, you go to a family doctor or a relevant specialist, address the problem and continue on your way. As you get older, you may begin visiting the doctor to undergo certain tests to identify early symptoms of a disease or other disease prevention measures. If, unfortunately, you are found to have a disease or are diagnosed later in life with a serious illness, then, intensive patient care treatment and monitoring begin. 

However, Jeroen Tas, Chief Innovation & Strategy Officer at Philips Healthcare opines that perhaps we should think about doctor-patient care differently.  Instead of focusing on sick people, the idea should be how to focus on keeping people healthy. He envisions a world where people learn how to monitor their heart rate, activities, and other daily functions which they can share with their general practitioner. The idea is that by using various smart devices and apps, a person can share this critical information with their doctor so they can constantly be monitored for irregularities or potential early warning signs of an ominous future medical condition.

On the Philips website, it says: “In today’s healthcare environment, it’s not enough to just diagnose and treat. Patients and clinicians alike are looking for ways to manage health conditions before issues arise, and to stay healthy long after treatment.”

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Healthcare has many steps

You can conduct R&D in the billions of dollars to produce the most advanced medicines that can help cure diseases or prevent other diseases. But what happens if the person forgets to take their medication or is not motivated to take the medicine prescribed. This is a problem that Pfizer faces. John Gordon, Pfizer’s Head of Digital International in Developed Markets explains that adherence to taking medicine is a big challenge. It’s a problem that the pharmaceutical industry has always faced. However, at present, technology can potentially offer many ways for the doctor or company to reach the patient and provide helpful interventions so the patient will adhere to the prescription.

The ideas could range from simple reminders to various educational materials using the appropriate medium for the patient. Gordon says that Pfizer looks to partner with startups in a variety of areas, but this is one where digital technology can provide solutions.

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CRISPR technology

CRISPR/Cas9 technology seeks to address the root causes of diseases by modifying, deleting, or correcting specific parts of the DNA. An oversimplified explanation would be that CRISPR enables medical professionals to “edit” disease and other medical conditions out of an individual’s DNA.

There are some applications of CRISPR technology which could change our world. One such example is hereditary diseases. Children can inherit faulty genes from their parents, causing diseases such as Down Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis and Tay-Sachs, to name a few. CRISPR technology could potentially be used to cut, remove or inactivate the problematic gene.

In March 2020, CRISPR gene therapy was used in a clinical trial to test its ability to remove genes causing a hereditary blindness disorder called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. This was the first time the CRISPR-Cas9 technique was inserted directly into the body.

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A day for health

Numerous companies are on the cutting edge of health innovation that will improve the quality and potentially the length of life for many. Diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries may suddenly be cured, and disabilities thought to be debilitating may be mitigated.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the world how a small invisible enemy can wreak havoc on humanity and disrupt the most basic functions of everyday life. However, the silver lining in the pandemic has been the ability of the pharmaceutical companies and medical community to create a vaccine in such a short period of time.

World Health Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the many innovations occurring in the medical community and the steps needed to be taken to improve the health of those inhabiting the planet.

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