Friends recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Honorable Tommy Thompson, who has previously served as the Governor of Wisconsin, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Chairman of the Board of the Global Fund. In this interview, he discussed the importance of continued U.S. support for global health efforts and the Global Fund.

Friends: What inspired your journey from Governor of Wisconsin to Secretary of Health and Human Services and then Chairman of the Board of the Global Fund?

Thompson: A desire to help people, and to get things done. I strongly believe in coming up with practical solutions that can help people in need. The Global Fund is a practical solution to a need that seemed at one time to be insurmountable. It is one of the great examples of multiple nations combining with the private sector to provide known treatments that were previously unavailable to these poor nations. It is not just a concept, not just an idea. What I like about the Global Fund is that it actually gets things done. People get treatment, and disease is prevented – especially because treatment itself can be prevention.

Friends: You traveled to Africa in both your roles as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Chairman of the Global Fund in 2003. What struck you the most when you looked at health problems on the ground? What experience was most memorable and galvanizing for you?

Thompson: While I was Secretary of HHS, I traveled to 37 countries, many of them in Africa. I led two public and private sector delegation trips to help American policymakers and leaders understand the HIV epidemic in Africa. The importance of the travel was in meeting real people, seeing them in their homes, and understanding their plight and the injustice of their situation. You can read or see video about such challenges, but it is only when you see it in person and meet the people affected that you really understand the problem.

Friends: You played an important role in attaining the first ever contribution to the Global Fund in 2001 – former President George W. Bush credited your persistent recommendation in his decision to make an initial U.S. pledge of $200 million. What motivated your persistence? Why did you believe that it would send a strong signal for America to be the Global Fund’s first contributor?

Thompson: I believe that if we have any hope of spreading democracy and ending tyranny in every corner of the globe, it is vital that we use all of the tools of freedom at our disposal. That includes our most effective arsenal against terrorists and the forces of oppression: education, compassion and medicine. That is the principle at the heart of what I call “medical diplomacy” – the winning of hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and elsewhere by exporting medical care, expertise and personnel to help those who need it most.

Friends: When you were elected chairman of the Global Fund Board, the organization was in need of additional funds to support crucial work in countries around the world. How did you work with donor countries to encourage them to honor their pledges and ensure the Global Fund’s future progress?

Thompson: The best way to lead, of course, is by example. So it was important, and still is, for America to be the lead funder and to honor its commitments. I think that everyone saw the great work being done on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), but understood that there was a need also for nations to work together. Also, I always believed personal relationships and personal connections were important. I was never afraid to call a fellow minister of health and remind them of the moral obligation we had to work together to address the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. I would also like to see more domestic commitment to public health needs in implementing countries. I think domestic investment would help spur donor investment. They are connected.

Friends: Since leaving public office and joining the private sector, you have continued to be deeply involved in health care issues domestically and abroad. The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in global health – helping to grow investments, build strategic partnerships and promote innovations, among other activities. What areas of global health, at the Global Fund and elsewhere, do you believe have seen the greatest benefit from private sector involvement?  

Thompson: First and foremost, innovations from the biopharmaceutical sector. Without these safe and effective treatments, we wouldn’t be anywhere. Access programs and cost-effective treatments have helped both PEPFAR and the Global Fund leverage scarce resources. But the private sector beyond the biopharmaceutical sector has played a role, as well. If you are committed to economic growth in a region, you need to be focused on the health and long-term well-being of your customers.

Friends: How could the private sector provide greater or more effective assistance?

Thompson: It is important that these partners get more engaged with both the Global Fund and Global Fund support organizations in their own home countries.

Friends: What would you like to see happen next in global health? 

Thompson: Sometimes I feel like the sense of urgency has been lost in the effort to address these horrible diseases. Maybe there is a sense that the box has been checked, it is being handled, and we need to move on. But the sense of urgency should still be there. When you look at it on an individual basis — the opportunities that still exist to prevent an illness or save a life — there isn’t a more urgent situation. So what I would like to see next is that we regain the sense of urgency.

Friends: What would you like most Americans to know about global health and the Global Fund?

Thompson: Global health and the Global Fund are important first and foremost from a public health perspective. But there is also a diplomatic argument there that we really need to communicate to the American people. When you provide medical services and supplies that help save an individual’s life, you create a long-lasting bond with not only that individual, but the individual’s community, which fosters continued goodwill for generations to come.