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Chapter 002. Global Issues in Medicine (Part 2)

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The optimism born of the world's first successful disease-eradication campaign invigorated the international health community, if only briefly. Global consensus regarding the right to primary health care for all was reached at the International Conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata (in what is now Kazakhstan) in 1978. However, the declaration of this collective vision was not followed by substantial funding, nor did the apparent consensus reflect universal commitment to the right to health care. Moreover, as is too often the case, success paradoxically weakened commitment. ...

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  1. Chapter 002. Global Issues in Medicine (Part 2) The optimism born of the world's first successful disease-eradication campaign invigorated the international health community, if only briefly. Global consensus regarding the right to primary health care for all was reached at the International Conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata (in what is now Kazakhstan) in 1978. However, the declaration of this collective vision was not followed by substantial funding, nor did the apparent consensus reflect universal commitment to the right to health care. Moreover, as is too often the case, success paradoxically weakened commitment. Basic-science research that might lead to effective vaccines and therapies for TB and malaria faltered in the latter decades of the twentieth century after these diseases were brought under control in the affluent countries where most such research is conducted. U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart declared in the late 1960s that it was time to "close the book on infectious diseases," and attention was turned to the main health problems of countries that had already undergone an "epidemiological transition"; that is, the
  2. focus shifted from premature deaths due to infectious diseases toward deaths from complications of chronic noncommunicable diseases, including malignancies and complications of heart disease. In 1982, the visionary leader of UNICEF, James P. Grant, frustrated by the lack of action around the Health for All initiative announced in Alma-Ata, launched a "child survival revolution" focused on four inexpensive interventions collectively known by the acronym GOBI: growth monitoring; oral rehydration; breast-feeding; and immunizations for TB, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio, and measles. GOBI, which was later expanded to GOBI-FFF (to include female education, food, and family planning), was controversial from the start, but Grant's advocacy led to enormous improvements in the health of poor children worldwide. The Expanded Programme on Immunization was especially successful and is thought to have raised the proportion of children worldwide who were receiving critical vaccines by more than threefold—i.e., from
  3. World Bank was to help poor countries identify "cost-effective" interventions worthy of international public support. At the same time, the World Bank encouraged many of these nations to reduce public expenditures in health and education as part of (later discredited) structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which were imposed as a condition for access to credit and assistance through international financial institutions such as the Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). One trend related, at least in part, to these expenditure-reduction policies was the resurgence in Africa of many diseases that colonial regimes had brought under control, including malaria, trypanosomiasis, and schistosomiasis. Tuberculosis, an eminently curable disease, remained the world's leading infectious killer of adults. Half a million women per year died in childbirth during the last decade of the twentieth century, and few of the world's largest philanthropic or funding institutions focused on global health. AIDS, first described in 1981, precipitated a change. In the United States, the advent of this newly described infectious killer marked the culmination of a series of events that discredited the grand talk of "closing the book" on infectious diseases. In Africa, which would emerge as the global epicenter of the pandemic, HIV disease further weakened TB control programs, while malaria continued to take as many lives as ever. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, these three diseases alone killed an estimated 6 million people each year. New research, new policies, and new funding mechanisms were called for. Some of the requisite
  4. innovations have emerged in the past few years. The leadership of the WHO has been challenged by the rise of institutions such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by bilateral efforts such as the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Yet with its 193 member states and 147 country offices, the WHO remains preeminent in matters relating to the cross-border spread of infectious and other health threats. In the aftermath of the SARS epidemic of 2003, the International Health Regulations—which provide a legal foundation for the WHO's direct investigation of a wide range of global health problems, including pandemic influenza, in any member state—were strengthened and brought into force in May 2007. Even as attention to and resources for health problems in resource-poor settings grow, the lack of coherence in and among global health institutions may seriously undermine efforts to forge a more comprehensive and effective response. While UNICEF had great success in launching and sustaining the child survival revolution, the end of James Grant's term at UNICEF upon his death in 1995 was followed by a lamentable shift of focus away from immunizations; predictably, coverage dropped. The WHO has gone through two recent leadership transitions and is still woefully underfunded despite the ever-growing need to engage a wider and more complex range of health issues. In another instance of the paradoxical impact of success, the rapid growth of the Gates Foundation, while clearly one of
  5. the most important developments in the history of global health, has led other foundations to question the wisdom of continuing to invest their more modest resources in this field. We may indeed be living in what some have called "the golden age of global health," but leaders of major organizations such as the WHO, the Global Fund, UNICEF, UNAIDS, and the Gates Foundation must work together to design an effective architecture that will make the most of the extraordinary opportunities that now exist. To this end, new and old players in global health must invest heavily in discovery (relevant basic science); in the development of new tools (preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic); and in a new science of implementation, or delivery.
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