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(RED): Reimagining a cure for AIDS

Deborah Dugan(RED)

Deborah Dugan joined (RED) as CEO in September 2011. She previously served for eight years as the president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, as well as senior advisor to the Tribeca Enterprises Board, which owns the Tribeca Film Festival, and as executive vice president at EMI/Capitol Records. Dugan started her career as an M&A attorney for a Wall Street law firm.

The TakeawayNew technology and new organizational models enable social innovators to engage vastly more people in a common goal, whether it’s raising awareness and funds for disease treatment or coming up with cures. (RED) took its message to shopping malls, enabling corporations and consumers to collaborate in the battle to eradicate HIV/AIDS.

Despite AIDS being a preventable and treatable disease, up to ten years ago, a diagnosis of HIVwas still a death sentence for those in the poorest parts of the world. In the developed world, there was a palpable lack of awareness and response to the pandemic spreading across Africa – the continent most gravely affected by the disease. In Africa, HIV positive people did not have access to the lifesaving antiretroviral (ARV) medication and health infrastructure that could dramatically improve their lives. Across the globe, there was a debilitating lack of hope and action.

Established in 2002, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria brought to light the devastating effect HIV/AIDS was having on the world’s poorest countries. Along with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund aimed to harness the power of governments and multilateral organizations to bring HIV/AIDS to the forefront of social consciousness and revolutionized how the world approached this problem.

A unique and innovative public–private financing institution, the Global Fund attracts and distributes resources to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. However, after four years, it was clear that while governments were stepping up, the private sector was not contributing enough to sustain the Global Fund’s public–private mission.

The breakthrough occurred in 2006, with the launch of (PRODUCT)RED, trademarked as “(RED)”. While many people subscribe to Milton Friedman’s belief that “the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits,” (RED) was founded on the idea that corporate profitability carries with it a social duty. Founded by U2 lead singer Bono and activist Bobby Shriver, it offered companies the opportunity to license the (RED) brand, linking their own brands and products to the global campaign to fight HIV/AIDS. For this privilege, they committed a percentage of the profits from their (RED)-branded goods and services to the Global Fund. The concept spread quickly, with companies including Apple, Starbucks, the Gap, and Nike joining in.

(RED) gives the average person the opportunity to join the fight against HIV/AIDS simply by purchasing the products they already love. Choosing the (RED) product – the iPad cover, the headphones, the sneakers – triggers a direct contribution from corporations to the Global Fund. The results have been dramatic. The (RED) collaboration of corporations and consumers has raised more than $180 million – 36 times the amount the Global Fund was able to generate from the private sector in its first four years.

We cannot afford to rest on this initial success. Today, more than ever, the public-health sector must harness private-sector advances in technology and communications in order to provide access to lifesaving HIV/AIDS treatment to those who cannot afford it. Other organizations, both public and private, are joining this cause with exciting innovations. The mobile industry is leveraging its networks to provide care in remote or underserved areas. The Praekelt Foundation, for example, developed TxtAlert, a mobile tool that sends automated, personalized SMS reminders to HIV-positive people to take their ARV medication.1

The same concept—targeting communities where they are and using the tools at hand—could even lead to cures. Video games, for example, attract phenomenal brainpower. Researchers at the University of Washington tapped into this energy with a “fun-for-purpose” video game called Foldit, involving chains of amino acids. In three weeks, gamers deciphered the enzyme structure of an AIDS-like virus, a problem scientists had been struggling with for decades. “The results show…that gaming, science, and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before,” said Seth Cooper, one of Foldit’s creators.

Never before has it been possible to connect and communicate with the world in real-time. Entire online communities have formed around (RED), which now has more than one million Twitter followers and Facebook friends. When combined with the social-media might of its corporate partners, (RED) can reach an audience of 70 million. Once people are energized by a common goal, they can work together to achieve extraordinary solutions.

(RED) and its partners are now focused on the goal of an AIDS Free Generation. The challenge is that 1,000 babies are born with HIV everyday – but with a galvanized collective effort, that number could be virtually zero by 2015.With increased funding from organizations, corporations, and the global health community, we could eliminate the transmission of HIV from mother-to-child by 2015. We could see the first generation in 30 years born HIV-free. Every generation is known for something. Will this be the one to deliver an AIDS-free generation in 2015?

1Anti-Retroviral Treatment.

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