Looking Ahead: Global Health Threats in 2019

The past year felt turbulent across many facets of life- global health included. Between threats to health from climate change, infectious disease outbreaks, the opioid crisis, threats to healthcare in war zones, and the ever-present health risks of noncommunicable diseases, global health resources are stretched thin. The coming year promises to be just as challenging.

Many global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization and IntraHealth, release reports on health risks to look out for at the start of each year. Between these lists, there is significant overlap, suggesting that the problems in global health are not a matter of lack of data or direction, but poor prioritization and lack of resources. Pollution and climate change rank high on almost all such lists; the WHO reports that 90% of people breathe polluted air on a daily basis. As a result, the WHO considers air pollution the greatest environmental threat to health for 2019- a significant step considering the threats of water pollution and other environmental contaminants. As with most global health issues, the world’s poorest people are hit the hardest. Nearly nine in ten of global deaths due to inhaled pollutants are in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), due to entirely preventable causes like poor regulation of transport emissions and using gas-powered cookstoves in homes.

Another problem heavily featured in the forecasting reports for 2019 include health risks due to conflict. More than 1 in 5 people across the globe (22%) live in a conflict-affected environment. These are the populations least likely to meet health and development targets, like the Sustainable Development Goals. Specific conflicts are high on the radar of global health officials, especially Yemen and Syria. Both countries have experienced heavy destruction of their existing health infrastructure, brain drain of medical personnel, and tangential struggles that bode poorly for health, such as food insecurity and poor sanitation. Dogged efforts by both local and international humanitarian workers have been able to stave off many public health disasters in such environments, but as wars proliferate and donor attention drifts, only the most pressing issues can be addressed. For example, in Yemen, an unprecedented multi-wave cholera outbreakled to more than 1 million cases of cholera. Of these cases, 30% were children. An effort by many international and local NGOs to distribute vaccines to these cases likely decreased the death toll, but the existing malnutrition of the population coupled with factors like destroyed water supplies exacerbated the outbreak and accelerated the need for resources and personnel.

Risks from infectious disease are typically present throughout global health forecasts, and this coming year was no different. In fact, for the first time, the WHO considers vaccine hesitancy, which they define as the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, to be a public health risk that threatens to undo decades of work eradicating diseases that, until quite recently, affected people around the world. Vaccine hesitancy is thought to be one of the factors that has led to a 30% increase in global measles cases. Outbreaks of Ebola have shown how dangerous and fast-moving an infectious disease can be, even with the health workers tasked with treating ill patients. Resurgence of polio in war-torn Syria was only dissipated through a massive vaccination effort. The growing threats from influenza, Dengue, Zika, MERS, SARS, and many other diseases have raised the alarm as to how well global public health processes are able to deal with a potentially catastrophic pandemic. Unfortunately, another global health risk identified by the WHO is antimicrobial resistance for the types of antibiotics that, for decades, have saved the lives of millions. This could cause currently treatable infections like pneumonia, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis to be as dangerous as in times before antibiotics were available. One such infection, tuberculosis, affects 10 million people per year and kills almost 20% of those afflicted. In 2017, almost 500,000 cases of tuberculosis were classified as “multi-drug resistant.”

It’s not all bad news. Overall, global health trends are moving in a generally positive direction. Global life expectancy has increased by 5 years since 2000. Every day, more people will be able to access clean water, electricity, and the internet. Global child mortality has fallen by almost 15% since 1960, while global extreme poverty has fallen to less than 10%, an almost 30% decrease from just three decades ago. Almost 90% of children receive the DTP vaccine before their first birthday. However, progress is uneven, and for many is too slow. Many experts believe that some of the long-simmering global health concerns of the past few decades may be coming to a head as 2019 begins.

For anyone concerned with global health, these risk forecasts can seem dire. Even under the best of conditions, most initiatives set to tackle these risks can at best hope to minimize, and not completely eradicate, the threats from these challenges. The MDGs and SDGs are an important first step in setting a global agenda that puts the social welfare of populations at the front and center, and such efforts must continue. Yet, policymakers cannot ignore the many countries around the world that continuously fail to meet minimum standards of health and well-being. We cannot decouple the political and economic circumstances that lead to failures in global health progress. Short-term aid packages are a necessary salve, but not a sustainable solution. Many global health advocates contend that putting health and well-being at the center of state strategic planning would cascade into positive indicators in all aspects of life, such as food security, education outcomes, economic development, and inter-state diplomacy and coordination. To ensure that we are poised to meet the known and still unknown risks that may come in the coming years, global health must be a primary consideration.

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