Global Health: The Big Picture

Robert Obara
Robert Obara completed his Master of International Public Health at the University of Sydney in 2009 and he is now studying medicine at Trinity College Dublin

What is global health anyway?

Let’s brush up on the basics. The 1978 Declaration of Alma-Ata states that “health, which is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal.” Unfortunately, vast disparities in health around the globe still exist more than thirty years later.

Different health burdens discriminately affect the poor around the world. Childhood malnutrition and unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene continue as leading causes of healthy life years lost in low-income countries.

We are fortunate in Canada to have some of the lowest child (under-5) and maternal mortality rates in the world (6/1,000 and 7/100,000, respectively). Now consider UNICEF data from Sierra Leone in 2007: the under-5 mortality rate was 262/1,000 and the maternal mortality rate was 2,100/100,000. The difference is astounding.

Though poverty leads to poor health, reduction of poverty is not the only way to improve health. In 2000, in response to global health disparity, 189 nations signed on towards eight important Millennium Development Goals (MDG):

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

Are we going to meet all the quantifiable MDG targets set for 2015? Regrettably, the answer is no. It is easy to blame the financial crisis for resulting in an additional 30,000-50,000 infant deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa and driving an additional 116 million people into extreme poverty; but ultimately there are still 2 billion people who are undernourished. With roughly 200,000 more people alive each day, the Alma-Ata goal of ‘health for all’ seems unrealistic.

So what can we do as future leaders in global health? The first step might be to dig deeper on the issue, past gross domestic products and life expectancies, to think about the quality of one’s life and aspirations in different places around the world. This perspective can drive constructive and rewarding roles in global health with often simple, community-sensitive action. You need not be specially trained in public/primary health or health research to help – everyone from teachers and civil engineers, to policy experts and statisticians, can play a vital role.

There are countless organizations working towards global health, but in Canada, our primary institution is the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). You can learn more about CIDA’s current projects. Furthermore, if you are a post-secondary graduate between the ages of 19 and 30, you might be eligible for CIDA’s International Youth Internship Program.