A boy helps Samuel Nicol, (age unknown) who suffers from onchocerciasis, walk through the village of Gbonjeima, Sierra Leone in 2012. Copyright Neglected Tropical Disease Support Center.
A Decatur-based global health nonprofit today joined the exclusive ranks of Hilton Humanitarian Prize awardees, receiving $2 million along with a prestigious designation won by only 20 other organizations ever.

Dave Ross
Dave Ross

Though not as well known as some other Atlanta-area nonprofits, The Task Force for Global Health has gained increasing recognition   in recent years locally and internationally. 

Launched more than 30 years ago by former Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Director Bill Foege, the Task Force works around the world, organizing programs for mass distribution of vaccines and other drugs, training field workers in epidemiology and working to control and eradicate neglected tropical diseases. 

The prize from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation didn’t come out of the blue — there was a long nomination and application review process — but victory was a surprise, said Dave Ross, the Task Force’s president. 

“We certainly did not expect to win it,” said Dr. Ross, whom Global Atlanta reached by phone while traveling at an epidemiology worker training summit in AbujaNigeria

The award honors the organization’s approach of achieving success by working with other groups, often behind the scenes and in line with founder Dr. Foege’s aphorism that “credit should be infinitely divisible.” 

“I think it’s a validation that building successful collaborations among partners is the way to solve big problems,” Dr. Ross said of the Hilton prize. “We look at as an acknowledgement of us, but also of all of our partners.”

Dr. Ross said the $2 million will go toward the $15 million purchase of a new headquarters in downtown Decatur at 330 W. Ponce De Leon Ave., just a stone’s throw from its current digs. The purchase of the government-owned building hasn’t officially closed but is well on its way to becoming official in “a month or two,” he said. 

The Task Force tackles big problems that require multiple stakeholders, particularly partners on the ground in the many countries where programs are implemented. 

Speaking from Nigeria, he pointed to the event he was attending, which trains field epidemiologists across Africa to detect diseases quickly and take action to counter them when they emerge. Nigeria’s experience in this field, for instance, helped contain the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014 that could have been much worse had it gotten loose in Africa’s largest country, home to more than 150 million people.

The Task Force, which operates field offices for its various initiatives in Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Pakistan, also manages mass drug distribution programs like one carried out in Ethiopia in May where more than 7 million people were provided doses of azithromycin, an antibiotic that treats blinding trachoma. 

Trachoma, a bacterial infection that works its way into the eyes, is one of the neglected tropical diseases the Task Force is fighting alongside partners like the Carter Center and Pfizer Inc., which donates its Zithromax drug to the International Trachoma Initiative, managed by the Task Force in Decatur. The work should eliminate the disease as public health problem in the next five to 10 years, Dr. Ross said. 

The ability to help “bring a partnership to scale” involving billions of dollars in donated drugs and partners including national and regional governments, health ministries and other nonprofits, is one reason the Task Force has been so successful. 

A similar initiative, the Mectizan Donation Program, was launched with support from Merck & Co. Inc. early on in the Task Force’s life as an organization. 

In 1987, the pharmaceutical giant committed to donating as much of its Mectizan drug as was needed to stamp out onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. The disease is carried by a parasitic worm spread through repeated black fly bites. The infection causes itching, eye lesions and, over time, blindness. Taken annually, Mectizan helps stop the itching and the progression toward blindness. 

Another recently launched program is set to build network of health workers that investigates the causes of death in children under five with the goal of reducing infant mortality rates in Africa. The Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) Network, includes the Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute. The work will begin with sites in South Africa, Mozambique, and Mali.

Dr. Ross said he hopes the organization’s new headquarters will be a living monument to these types of collaboration. 

“It would be a clear demonstration that Atlanta is a capital of global health. It is a way of building on a legacy in Atlanta of humanitarian work and as a home for social justice,” he said. 

He envisions it as a place for organizations to co-mingle, at times even sharing office and conference space. 

“We’re using the prize to help strengthen our infrastructure, which helps us support our work around the world,” he said. 

The Task Force’s 120-plus employees have worked on programs in more than 150 countries. 

Dr. Ross, who previously founded and ran the informatics institute,  took over as president and CEO in May after the retirement of Mark Rosenberg

The Task Force will be honored at the Hilton Foundation’s international Humanitarian Symposium in New York Sept. 30. Nominations for the 2017 prize are being accepted Sept. 15-Oct. 15 this year.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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