Making the planet a healthier place – and, by extension, more secure and economically vibrant – requires the attention not only of world leaders and organizations but the dedication of a whole community of health care professionals on the ground tackling the issues day in and day out.
What comes to mind when someone says, “global health?” Does it evoke a heart-wrenching visual of someone sick and in pain? Do you imagine a hospital or physician delivering care? Do you think of medicines or machines or even the scientists who develop both? Or perhaps it’s none of the above.
You can see how this causes a conundrum for the community of health professionals focused on these issues. Both the beauty and blessing of global health is that it means a myriad of things to many people. Probably more important is our ultimate collective goal: to improve health and wellness for people worldwide.
Whether focused on community education and risk prevention, health care services and patient support, or data and innovation, global health encompasses a wide range of programs and practitioners. And there are countless issues and ailments that influence health. People often think of infectious diseases ranging from the flu to Ebola.
Others might consider more chronic conditions, such as cancer or heart disease, that affect populations worldwide. However, risk factors, such as tobacco use, are a critical global health concern as are systemic challenges, such as vaccine shortages and resistance to antibiotics – a disturbing reality of today. Furthermore, there are clear links between health and other global issues, including climate change and infrastructure. Weather patterns affect the population of animals and insects that carry diseases and, at a basic level, crops that provide nutritious foods to children and adults. Poor sanitation makes communities and families vulnerable to a number of other infections.
As broad as the global health sector and its stakeholders can be, there are clear trends that apply across the board. First of all, the burden is shifting in interesting and important ways. We are on the cusp of eradicating polio, after years of strong efforts and investments. We also are within sight of an AIDS-free generation and the end of preventable maternal and child deaths. These are milestones of which we should be proud as a health care community. At the same time, we are continuously faced with regular pandemic outbreaks and other threats that could affect the progress we’ve made to date in other areas. And there are a number of priorities that still don’t get nearly the attention they should. A prime example is tuberculosis. It has become clear the global health community must be ready not only for what’s now but what is next.
In addition to the shifting global health burden, we are faced with a change in political appetites for and understanding of global health investments or needs. The United States – a leader in this field for decades – is debating what its role should be in financing and otherwise driving global health progress. Other traditional donor countries are increasing their investments, particularly in the area of family planning and reproductive health. In March, the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden co-organized a She Decides conference to raise funds in support of sexual and reproductive health and family planning worldwide.
There were also a number of commitments made at this year’s Family Planning Summit, co-hosted by Britain’s Department of International Development, the United Nations Population Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nearly 40 governments, 16 companies, and 11 partner organizations pledged US $2.5 billion by 2020, with a majority of funding coming from countries in Africa and Asia. This demonstrates an especially relevant trend, which is how much domestic versus international funding has come to play a role in global health activities. Private-sector initiatives have become increasingly-important, as well. Last year, about 20 companies came together to form the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Private Sector Roundtable. This coalition, with members across various industries, serves to coordinate private-sector activities that support countries in reaching their GHSA goals. Clearly, as we think about how to tackle the world’s health problems, such examples help us consider the range of resources required to be successful and how to stimulate diverse sources of funding.
A critical resource is global health leadership. Leaders can range from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the new director-general of World Health Organization, to a community health worker who provides education on disease risk and local treatment services. Ultimately, global health is about the people that benefit or suffer from its progress or setbacks. So it makes sense that they drive its future. People on the ground tackling these issues daily can tell us what they see and hear, what they know is working, and how to ensure we continue to make positive gains. They share their stories, providing honest perspectives and helpful reference points for praiseworthy outcomes and lessons learned. And, perhaps most importantly, they broaden the ownership of global health so that, no matter the definition we use, everyone understands his or her role in advancing its mission. In reality, we all have an opportunity to support global health and, given its connection to everything from the global economy to national security, we should step up and do so.