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Now a partner, Save the Children CEO used to protest GlaxoSmithKline price policies

Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth used to protest the price GlaxoSmithKline charged for HIV drugs, but times change and he changed his view, part of why Save the Children entered an agreement Thursday with GSK to help children in the developing world..

Justin Forsyth changed his mind about GlaxoSmithKline.

Forsyth is the chief executive officer of Save the Children, which announced a five-year, $23 million agreement with GSK to work on improving health care and vaccination in the developing world. One aim is to combat basic-but-deadly problems such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition for children.

"I used to protest against GSK and campaign against GSK," Forsyth said during a conference call with reporters on from Nairobi. "That was years ago before Andrew Witty took over and it was because the high prices that they were charging for HIV medicine."

Forsyth worked for Oxfam for 15 years before joining the British government to help with poverty programs in the developing world.

In its recently published 14th annual State of the World's Mothers report, Save the Children said, "more than 1 million babies die on the first day of life – making the birth day the most dangerous day for babies in nearly every country, rich and poor alike."

A link to the report is here.

The report says that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the world's toughest place to be a mother and Finland is the best. The report has what's called a Mother's Index, assessing mothers' well-being in 176 countries, using indicators such as maternal health, under-five mortality, levels of women's education, income, and political status. The report said a woman or girl in the Congo has a 1 in 30 chance of dying from maternal causes – including childbirth – but in Finland the risk is 1 in 12,200.

The bottom 10 spots went to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

With that in mind, the GSK and Save the Children program will start in Kenya and the Congo.

"For a long time, the private sector didn't do a lot to help development," Forsyth said, adding that corporations have done more of late, if not always effectively. "The model for change is that this is a core business of GSK."

As for the pharmaceutical industry's changing approach, Forsyth said, "Pharma is changing, and it is being led by GSK and Andrew Witty. He has been ahead of anyone else."

GSK and Merck announced a deal with the GAVI Alliance on Thursday to provide HPV vaccine at $4.60 and $4.50 per dose, which is less than the previously lowest public sector cost. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) suggested the drug companies should go lower on the price and make it available to all reputable non-governmental organizations.

MSF and Forsyth agree that very basic care, early care and nutrition are lacking.

One idea already in the works is reformulating a GSK mouthwash into a gel that can be applied to the umbilical stump of a newborn to ward off infection. Another early idea for research will be antibiotics that can be given to babies, perhaps in a powdered form. That form would not require cold storage or clean water, both in short supply in remote villages. A Save the Children representative will participate in GSK research and development efforts to find new approaches that work in places with the most need.

GSK is based in London, but has 1300 employees in a new building at the Navy Yard and more at facilities in suburban Philadelphia.

North America pharmaceuticals president Deirdre Connelly, who works from the Navy Yard office, said the company would match employee contributions to Save the Children dollar for dollar.

Some of deadly diseases and problems Save the Children deals with are unknown to Americans. But GSK has been exploring how to help in communities in several continents. GSK is, of course, a for-profit company, but part of the strategy is to be sufficiently engaged with communities to learn what the needs are. From that, there might be products to create and sell. The Healthy Communities Initiative was a program of meetings in Philadelphia, Denver and St. Louis, which brought together leaders of community groups that deal directly or indirectly with health care.

One size or format of a product does not always fit all.

"We try to commercialize medicine in a way that allows for the best probability of access to those who need it at the right time," said Connelly, who listed multiple charitable ways that GSK encourages employees to help save the world. "My colleagues in emerging markets and Europe and I meet continually to discuss ideas and questions of commercialization and packaging."

Witty said he thinks shareholders want a decent return on their investment and for the company to do the right thing, such as the donation to Save the Children and applying the company's scientific expertise.

"We can't do everything, but we should do as much as we can," Witty said on Thursday's call. "I'm confident that is what shareholders want."