Dr. Peter Singer (right) with a nurse in a Tanzanian pediatric ward
Dr. Peter Singer’s first foray into the ethical issues surrounding medicine was a paper he was assigned by high school teacher Doug Blaikie when Singer was attending Upper Canada College. He wrote about the questions raised around the issue of using human research subjects. Now he believes one of the most significant ethical questions of our time is the inequity of global health.
“What makes it right that a woman in a developing country is more than 100 times as likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than my wife? What makes it right that a child in the developing world is more than 10 times as likely to die under five than my own kids?” he asks.
It’s this injustice that has driven Singer to devote himself to delivering the medicine, science and technology we may sometimes take for granted in Canada to some of the world’s poorest nations.
Singer is working toward this goal as the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, a non-profit dedicated to using innovation to address health issues in developing countries. He is also co-author of the recently-released book The Grandest Challenge: Taking Life-Saving Science from Lab to Village.
“All ‘innovation’ really means is that tomorrow will be a better day than today,” he says.
Grand Challenges Canada has set out five targets it would like to tackle over five years. One of the five targets is to enable people, or “rising stars,” to test out their ideas on how to address health issues — to see if the ideas could work.
The program has already seen results. A doctor in Tanzania noticed that smelly socks attract mosquitoes. To reduce the incidence of malaria, he created boxes that are placed outside of huts and lure mosquitoes with the scent and then kill them with insecticide.
The doctor was able to put his idea into action with a grant from Grand Challenges.
Another slightly more controversial method for dealing with malaria that Singer has worked on with scientists is the genetic modification of mosquitoes. “That’s the grandest challenge — solving those huge inequities by taking science from lab to village,” he says.
Of all the people he has encountered, one of the stories that has affected Singer most comes from his co-author and long-time colleague, Dr. Abdallah Daar.
“Abdallah grew up in East Africa, in Tanzania, and his sister died of malaria, and malaria is one of the key things that we can do something about,” he says.
For Singer, the ultimate goal is to ensure that no matter where kids are born they are afforded the same opportunities that he had.
Right now, the odds are stacked against kids in developing countries. Once they survive childbirth, he says, they still face malnourishment, which causes irreversible harm to the brain. In fact, he believes this may be why developing countries struggle to catch up to the developing world.
But in spite of all the challenges, Singer remains optimistic.
“There’s a lot of hope for a better future,” he says.
The Post salutes Dr. Peter Singer for his efforts to ensure that the world’s poorest have equal access to life-saving medicine.