Vaccine hesitancy — “anti-vaxxing” — is one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO defines vaccine hesitancy as the refusal to be vaccinated or to have one’s children vaccinated, reluctance leading to delays in inoculation or the cherry-picking of vaccines in spite of the availability of cost-effective inoculations, that could reverse decades of progress made in significantly reducing or eliminating preventable diseases.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the United States, the most common sexually transmitted infection is HPV, which is also the case globally. Most people are infected at some point in their lifetime, and HPV infections typically cause no symptoms and resolve spontaneously. But many others do not. HPV is a virus with DNA as its genetic material that can result in warts and precancerous lesions that elevate the risk of several cancers; it is the cause of most cervical cancer and 60% to 90% of other cancers, including of the vagina, vulva and mouth. Vaccines can prevent the most common types of HPV infection.
In Western Pennsylvania, George Fechter has been working to eradicate HPV. He will talk about “Pittsburgh’s Quest for Universal HPV Inoculation” at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Contemporary Issues Forum series sponsored by the Chautauqua Women’s Club.
A health emergency has prevented Maxwell King, outgoing president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, from speaking about the life and work of Fred Rogers.
Throughout his career, Fechter has repeatedly demonstrated that ideation is one of his inherent strengths. Often characterized as an “ideapreneur,” he has generated new and innovative ideas while working and volunteering for others, founding many companies, and serving as an adviser to and key board member of numerous academic, business and community organizations within and beyond greater Pittsburgh.
For an ideapreneur, problems are challenges, and ideas are new perspectives on those challenges, as well as connections between seemingly disparate facts or occurrences.
Currently, Fechter manages Fechter Holdings, a portfolio of investments in privately held companies. Engineering and construction, contracting-related services, medical technologies, health care information, disaster management and education technology are the sectors with which he has been most involved.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he left temporarily to earn his Bachelor of Science in psychology at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
“Civil rights has been very, very important,” Fechter said. “When I was in college, I helped to get Mayor (Richard) Hatcher elected as the first black mayor of a northern city. Everybody was registering voters, and I thought that there was a better path to success. I deregistered them based on obituaries. … That was in Gary, Indiana.”
He returned to Pittsburgh, where he earned a Master of Arts in psychology and continued to pursue his interest in social justice. He volunteered with the then-nascent Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, which was established in 1968 in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been involved with (the Guild) for almost 50 years,” Fechter said. “We provide vocational training and arts programs to the disadvantaged in 12 locations around the United States. We have one rough-and-tumble city in Acre, in Northern Israel.”
For a year and a half, he worked on the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations for the office of Joseph Barr, who was mayor from 1959 to 1970.
“Help wanted ads had been historically ‘help wanted ads male’ and ‘(help wanted ads) female,’ ” Fechter said. “And there was a complaint filed that this aided discrimination on the basis of gender. (We found) that ads frequently had compensation that was less for females than males.”
Pittsburgh Press Co. vs. the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; on June 21, 1973, the court issued its ruling.
“As a kid I was putting (the legal argument) together with some C-grade lawyers, but we managed to win,” Fechter said. The U.S. Supreme Court “eliminated gender-based help wanted advertising.”
At the Commission on Human Relations, Fechter also tried to integrate the construction unions. In doing so, he said he became familiar with engineering construction.
Fechter earned a Master of Business Administration at Duquesne University, and joined the construction industry — a “rustbelt” mechanical engineering and contracting group called Limbach — to work on integration issues.
“I ended up hanging around until I was chairman of the board,” he said.
The 25-year period from 1973 to 1998 was Fechter’s “big company era,” during which he was an intrapreneur — an entrepreneur within a company — at Limbach and became involved in health sciences.
“There was a terrible economic period around (in the late ’70s) called stagflation, where we had negative GDP and rampant inflation,” he said. “It was just a very difficult period, and they gave me a title back in 1979 of senior vice president of corporate development. It was like being senior vice president … on the Titanic. We thought that we would go out of business.”
So Fechter “reinvented the company.” He said he founded companies to maintain the mechanical systems of the buildings that Limbach was building. One such business was Linc, for HVAC service franchising. Currently, it operates in 200 cities and more than 200,000 buildings.
“And then I built a company, which today is known as Linc Facility Services, and they manage big, complex facilities like the Atlanta Airport,” Fechter said. “When 1 in 4 passengers takes off, they’re involved.”
A trip to the Middle East led to his involvement in health care.
“When I was waiting in an even/odd (day) line for gas, I decided I was going to go to Saudi Arabia and find out where the money’s going,” Fechter said. “We had a contract in Saudi Arabia with a German contractor.”
Limbach provided all the materials and a mechanical construction manager. When there was turnover of construction supervisors, the penalties were very high.
Perhaps because of his background in psychology, the science of behavior and mind, he went to the head of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic — and chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s psychiatry department, Thomas Detre — and said, “I want you to come up with a test and figure out which kinds of employees can make it in Saudi Arabia.”
He said he knew how to make decisions about their vocational skills, but not about what was happening in their homes and personal lives. WPIC developed a protocol that worked well.
During the mid-1980s, a “large French conglomerate” bought the engineering services companies that Fechter started and he became the board chair. He said that Enron purchased them in 1998.
Retiring for the first time at age 52, Fechter began transitioning from intrapreneur to entrepreneur.
The University of Pittsburgh retained Fechter as a contract CEO for an academic unit that was building the McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development — which was developing an artificial heart to keep patients alive long enough for a heart transplant.
“While there I … advanced a service company, Vital Engineering, that looked after patients on artificial hearts,” Fechter said. “Among other things, Vital engineers stood outside Dick Cheney’s bedroom for the year and a half that he was waiting for a heart transplant.”
He then helped raise more than $200 million to found Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse to take advantage of newfound biosciences, genetics and computational biology. Fechter said that PLSG “combines the life sciences at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon (University) with computation and imaging at Carnegie Mellon,” and has spawned hundreds of companies.
“And since 2003, I’ve been inventing other companies; really too many to mention,” he said. “One uses technology to manage nursing homes. Another improves productivity for surgical services.”
His favorite is Collaborative Fusion, a disaster management company started after 9/11 by two students with expertise in knowledge management whom he inspired and supported. Intermedix Corporation purchased Collaborative Fusion in 2011 and developed software for directing first responders at disaster scenes. Fechter said that it provides emergency management services in 20 countries and all 50 states.
“I kind of invent things,” he said. “I’m a business person. I may run engineering companies, but I’m not an engineer.”
Fechter has served on the board of the Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh for 10 to 12 years, and has chaired it for the last five.
“The way I get involved in HPV is, we invest the foundation resources and we do a pretty good job of that,” he said. “We raise new money; we do a good job of that.”
In other words, when the department chairs in ophthalmology and otolaryngology want something, they get it.
“Jonas Johnson, who heads otolaryngology, is a Jamestown native,” Fechter said. “He comes to me and says, ‘George, how about providing some seed funding for us to do some work on an adult vaccine for HPV?’ ”
By inoculating children, Fechter said, there would be no need for an adult vaccine.
“And what’s called ‘adherence’ or ‘compliance’ was so low — (about three years ago), it was around 10%,” he said. “And (Johnson) said, ‘You don’t know how hard it is. There will be big pushback.’ ”
Undeterred, Fechter said, “We invest money, we raise money, we distribute money. We can take on advocacy. Let’s try.”
Because it was beyond the resources of the Ear & Eye Foundation “in terms of staff, and money and everything,” Fechter said he partnered with the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
The rest of the quest is for Fechter to tell in person.