Fighting Sickle Cell Disease in Angola: Building Partnerships to Match the Challenge

Angola has one of the world's highest rates of sickle cell disease, but lacked a formal, organized effort to fight it -- until now.

A history-making agreement was signed today in the capital of Luanda, initiating the West African nation's first program to address a disease that likely affects some 6,000 babies born in Angola each year.

Even though a fifth of Angola's roughly 17 million people have the sickle cell trait, information on the number of children affected is sketchy, as only a fraction are diagnosed. Serious complications of the disease -- including bacterial infections and stroke -- mean that only about half of Angola's affected children reach age 2.

The disease is a major contributor to Angola's child mortality rate, among the world's highest. A staggering one in four Angolan children will die before they reach their fifth birthday.

The good news is that we now have the tools to change this bleak outlook for African children born with sickle cell disease -- in exactly the same way we now expect American children with the disease to live long and full lives.

The key is early diagnosis and treatment. That's the focus of a new public-private partnership of the Republic of Angola, the Baylor International Pediatrics AIDS Initiative (BIPAI) -- a joint program of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital -- and Chevron.

Based on experience in the United States -- which accounts for less than one percent of the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 global cases of sickle cell disease each year and where newborn screening is universal -- the program's pilot will begin with newborn screening and subsequent treatment at two large maternity hospitals in Luanda.

The project, designed by leading global sickle cell disease expert Dr. Russell Ware in close coordination with BIPAI and medical experts in Angola, is comprehensive. Following the pilot, the goal will be to expand subsequent phases to Angola's 18 provinces, simultaneously building Angola's capacity to address the disease through public health policies, health training and the dissemination of clinical research.

Why is Angola's need so acute? Although rich in natural resources such as diamonds and oil - Angola is the second-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa and the 7th largest supplier to the U.S. -- Angola is only eight years removed from a 27-year civil war that devastated its infrastructure, including its healthcare system, and severely impacted its socio-economic development.

Why this particular partnership? To help its children, the Angolan government reached out to Chevron. Not only has Chevron operated in Angola for more than 50 years, it also has been a driver of the successful Angola Partnership Initiative, a multipartner, multiyear effort to rebuild Angola's agricultural sector and promote small business [outside the oil industry].

Chevron, in turn, reached out to experts -- in this disease, in pediatric medicine and, as in the case of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, to organizations with a proven track record establishing medical capacity building programs.

To make headway against such a disease, especially in a time of limited resources, the engagement of corporate partners is critical. Success depends on building smart partnerships -- that include the core strengths of leading global companies -- that match the size of the challenge.

But why do Angola's health issues concern business?

Only with a healthy local workforce and a healthy local economy can a business, global or local, operate successfully over the long term. It's in the interests of business to help address unmet basic human needs -- health, education and economic development -- that pose risks to any community.

Chevron has learned that success depends on committed partners, with unique and complementary resources, who collaborate -- the same ingredients at work in other partnerships Chevron engages in around the globe. Partners with strategically aligned strengths are even more effective vehicles for bringing focused action to diseases such HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

As with its other partnerships, Chevron's $4 million investment in this new alliance comes with a hands-on commitment to achieve lasting results: the involvement of its employees and business partners.

The agreement signed today is only the beginning of giving more of Angola's children a greater chance at life .. and moving Angola one step closer to harnessing its vast national potential.

We all have a stake in helping write history like that.