03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I Can't Afford To Be Sick: Disabled By My Proximity To Porcelain

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, "I can't afford to be sick right now?" It's an overused cliché that deserves a little attention especially with the outbreak of H1N1 in most people's mind and backyard. However, I'm thinking of it for different reasons. Since returning from my travels to Rwanda, Bangladesh and Lao PDR, I've succumbed to some foreign GI invader. As the managing director of a fast-paced and growing international initiative to combat neglected tropical diseases (more on these later), I spend a lot of my time on the road talking about the impact of disease on economic development. Only now do I understand on a personal level how the two are inextricably linked.

You see, I'm disabled by my proximity to porcelain. Until my doctors can figure this out and cure me, I've missed work, Halloween parties at my kid's school, and important meetings like the one scheduled in Uganda next week. I'm behind by 200 emails, I haven't returned important phone calls and my biggest funders' report is due in a month. Life just doesn't stop because you are sick. However, I'm not the only one paying the price. My husband has had to take off work to help with things I typically take care of, friends are stepping in to cover carpool and my associates have had to reschedule long-standing meetings. Life may not stop when you are sick, but it sure does have an impact on efficiency.

Now, think about this on a macro level. The World Bank estimates a severe avian flu pandemic among humans could cost the global economy about 3.1% of world gross domestic product - around US$1.25 trillion on a world GDP of $40 trillion. That is a lot of money. Consider as well, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the health cost of obesity in the United States is as high as $147 billion annually. What is the point of all of this? Well, I have two - one that's relevant to the United States in our health care debate and the other about disease prevention in developing world economies.

At Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit this year, we talked a lot about U.S. health care reform. According to Reuters, the United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world, just shy of 16 pct of GDP, but has higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes and other ills than many other developed countries. I don't believe the American people are getting a return on their investment. But besides that, I wonder who is calculating the COST of illness as it relates to our ability to compete on a global level. Opportunity costs are often overlooked compared to expenses. For the American public, I challenge them to think of health as a component of competitiveness.

Now back to my day job. If you knew that preventing one disease, lymphatic filariasis, could return $1.5bn in GDP per year in India, for less than 50 cents per person per year - wouldn't you invest in that program? Or, if preventing a child from hookworm disease (another one of the NTDs) could increase that child's future wage earnings by up to 40% (the pill to treat hookworm costs about 2 cents and is given 1-2 times per year), why is it that we don't invest more in the prevention of disease? I believe it's because we don't we don't calculate the costs on a comprehensive level. I know what it 'costs' me to treat my GI invader, $25 for Zithromax and a $10 co-pay to visit the doctor, but if you take my hourly wages, the cost of my illness is more in the realm of $4,000. I don't know about you, but I would much rather pay to prevent disease versus being disabled by my proximity to porcelain.