Friday the Obama Administration announced a new initiative, the “Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA),” that addresses the looming threat of the global spread of infectious disease. The initiative’s motto is “the need to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats” as they relate to national security. Global pandemics can cause national risk through trade, exchange, and international travel, and the consequences can be profound both within and across the borders of countries.
The U.S. has forged global partnerships to address the threat of infectious disease. However, the odds are not good in that 80 percent of all world nations are not prepared to handle this massive issue. The U.S. will not take this on alone. Jordan Tappero, who is the Director of Global Health Protection at the Center for Global Health (Center for Disease Control/CDC) announced that the leader for the new initiative will be Health and Human Services. However, other U.S. Departments – namely, Defense, State and Agriculture – will also be key players. And, the U.S., in an effort to be part of a community of likeminded nations, will work together with international organizations. Joining them are the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization and other groups across countries and regions. Currently a total of 26 collaborator countries are stakeholders with the U.S., including close allies as well as those with whom the U.S. is working to develop improved relations: China, India and Russia.
One of the challenges in bringing forth the plan from the Global Health Security Agenda initiative is the differing priorities of Defense and Health. Whereas Defense is concerned with national security risk, Health is geared towards the elimination of infectious disease and the affect on populations. Since the initiative must identify those diseases with greatest potential for significant national and international consequence, it must focus its efforts in that regard.
On a large scale, however, what the Global Health Security Agenda is addressing is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. According to Salmaan Keshavjee MD, PhD, Director of Infectious Disease and Social Change, in Harvard Medical School’s Global Health & Social Medicine, the root causes of infectious disease are both medical and social. The source is based in existing structures that are political, economic, religious, and social. Managing one aspect while overlooking the other will not be effective in eradicating disease.
This is particularly true because, even with the advent half a century ago of effective antibiotics, infectious disease is rampant in the majority of the world. In fact, bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections are the leading cause of mortality worldwide – causing one-third of all deaths.
In much the same way that the U.S. is serving as advocate and partnering with other nations to address the issue of infectious disease, grassroots organizations and international medical teams are doing so, as well. Partners in Health (PIH) has been at the center of health care transformation in global areas of poverty for the past 25 years. PIH and the Program in Infectious Disease and Social Change at HMS are using community health organizers or “accompagnateurs” to work with local peoples in Haiti, Ethiopia, rural Mexico, and other countries. By listening to needs and learning how to best reach those who most require help, these groups are pioneering on the ground level, making significant changes in education, health care, advocacy, and policy change.
Focus on global health security is an important first step towards the elimination of infectious disease. Government support for the organizations that are working to reduce infectious disease on global scale would help to move this issue forward.
By Fern Remedi-Brown