A reporter’s eye for a story and a trip to Africa led Lisa Cohen to found the Washington State Global Health Alliance (WGHA). The organization brings global health companies and organizations together to talk about mutual interests and projects that benefit developing countries.
“We are like a yenta,” she says, “a matchmaker,” pulling together organizations that wouldn’t normally work together or don’t know about each other. At the time of this interview, she was about to verify a collaborative effort between “the Seattle Sounders, PATH, WorldVision, the UW and WSU” to bring clean water, hygiene and sanitation to Tanzania.
Cohen was an executive news producer at KING-TV in 2000 when the fledgling Gates Foundation invited her on a trip to Ghana, Gambia and South Africa. Cohen had done her masters at the University of Washington “on South Africa and apartheid,” but had never visited the continent. She says was stunned and horrified by the ravages of “not only AIDS and TB and malaria,” but a lack of measles vaccines and poor maternal health care.
Returning home, Cohen was determined to help.
“The first thing I said to my husband…was, ‘we’re going to Africa and we’re taking the kids,’” she recalls. She also learned about PATH on that trip, the area leader in development and delivery of health solutions, “stalking them,” she jokes, determined to spread the word about their work.
As she made the global health rounds here, she supposed an organization promoting collaboration would be helpful. In consultation with area leaders, she “decided to give it a try.” WGHA’s small staff started working in PATH’s offices for their first five years and couldn’t have launched without their support, Cohen says.
Today brings “a very interesting time” for global health, she observes. A steady increase in government funding began under George W. Bush, including from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which coincided with the “ramping up” of the Gates Foundation, one of the world’s biggest funders of global health work.
“We’ve had more progress in the last 10 to 12 years,…especially [fighting] infectious disease, than we’ve seen at any time in human history,” she says.
That includes maternal mortality dropping, a promising malaria vaccine in development, and longer HIV survival.
Yet the developing world has more heart disease, diabetes and obesity, like the West, and tuberculosis continues “to be a huge problem.” Funding is needed for “increasing attention to non-communicable diseases and mental illness,” says Cohen.
Sequestration and the economic downturn have created monetary challenges.
“Who’s got the money?” she asks. “That’s the tough one.”
Raised in a military family, Cohen thinks their arrival in Vancouver, Wash., when she was 15, “was the 11th move” for the household. Cohen hoped to follow her father, a surgeon, into medicine, but only lasted one quarter. Majoring in journalism, she landed an internship at KOMO-TV (alongside the late Kathy Goertzen) and was hired there after graduation.
Cohen and her husband Tom are former members of Woodinville’s Congregation Kol Ami, where their daughter Elizabeth became a Bat Mitzvah. (Their son, currently in the Marines, opted out of that rite of passage.) Cohen fondly remembers their rabbi, Laurie Rice, tutoring Elizabeth during a long hospitalization in eighth grade.
“The nurses would be lined up outside the door,” listening while they chanted prayers, she says.
Cohen made time to talk to JTNews during a busy period as WGHA prepares for its major Nov. 9 fundraiser, Party for the Health of It. The festive evening attracts 1,000 young adults to the Seattle Aquarium to party and “learn about global health in an interesting way.”