Enormous Opportunities Ahead to Improve Global Health, U.S. Says

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
20September 2011

Washington — Developing countries are poised to make significant progress in improving mother and neonatal health and reducing child mortality, as the world joins in a new commitment to reduce noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

The comments came at a press briefing in New York City as the U.N. General Assembly looked at ways September 19–20 to gear up efforts to reduce the occurrence of NCDs, which account for 63 percent of all deaths worldwide. The high-level event called by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was aimed at addressing the problems caused by such noncommunicable diseases as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

It’s only the second time in U.N. history that a high-level meeting has been held on global health. The other time was when the United Nations addressed the threat from HIV/AIDS.

“We have the potential to drive forward our programs, such that we could be reducing childhood mortality by 38 to 40 percent,” said Amy Batson, deputy assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The key to achieving that success, Batson said at a September 20 briefing, will be to expand the reach and goals of health programs that are already proven effective in disease-fighting campaigns conducted in recent years.

“With the investments that the U.S. and many, many other partners have made in health, we actually have both the platforms and technologies to save millions of lives,” Batson said.

The USAID official cited recent gains in reducing childhood deaths from malaria, for example, up to 30 percent. That was achieved, in part, through expanding the use of a simple technology: bed nets, which protect the sleeper from nighttime bites by mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.

Progress in the treatment of pregnant mothers has carried over to help improve the health of infants after birth and as they grow into children. The officials cited the advances in this area achieved through PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that was launched during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

Cancer is another NCD targeted in this new effort to improve international cooperation and exchange of experience to improve global health. The United States will be able to help other countries reduce cancer by helping them reduce tobacco use, which causes several different forms of cancer, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official who participated in the briefing.

“There’s a whole series of steps that, when taken, can profoundly reduce tobacco use and have enormous consequences for reduction in disease,” said Donald Shriber, a director for policy at CDC’s Center for Global Health.

Shriber sees another disease-prevention strategy emerging during this U.N. session.

“It’s quite striking listening to speakers from around the world and the extent to which they are relying on nonhealth sectors to get health results,” Shriber said. Whether a government agency is focused on environment, agriculture or energy, Shriber said, CDC is promoting a “whole of government approach” to maximize efforts in NCD prevention.

Recognizing that disease respects neither nationality nor international boundaries, the global community has made significant progress in recent years to act cooperatively against disease, but those collaborative efforts have been directed primarily toward infectious disease. The World Health Organization released a report earlier in the year emphasizing that the combined toll of NCDs also merited unified action against these ailments.

“The United States has a substantial investment in global health because, put simply, it saves lives,” said Lois Quam, executive director of the Global Health Initiative (GHI). “And it saves lives in a way that protects Americans and all the world’s citizens from the challenges of the spread of disease.”

Quam said the GHI is attempting to leverage the progress that has been made in other international health programs, some in place for decades, to find more and broader solutions for other health issues.

“It really is an exciting opportunity that we are very well-positioned to deliver on,” Batson said.

While the current U.N. session focused primarily on cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases, there is also recognition that mental illness, trauma and accident are other serious health conditions that deserve international collaboration.