SEATTLE, Washington — Modern society has seen its fair share of pandemics before COVID-19, including Zika fever, Ebola, MERS and influenza viruses. With increasing international travel and trading, the risk of spreading infectious diseases has never been higher. Despite this, COVID-19 can arguably be described as the most far-reaching, destructive and unceasing disease we have encountered. As countries globally take different approaches to combat the pandemic, one fact remains the same; if the coronavirus survives in just one country, it jeopardizes the whole world. The questions and concerns facing global health officials today continue to mount, and many are looking back at past global health issues and international aid strategies.
The Beginning of Global Health
Global health began with a focus on infectious diseases and the distribution of healthcare to fight these diseases. In the 16th and 17th centuries, travel and colonizing in lands with new conditions and environments led to widespread death. Mortality rates soared for previously isolated populations and colonists who could not adapt to the diseases common to the area. Travel and expansion posed a threat to both parties, leading to the rapid spread of illnesses.
Poverty has also been influential to poor health, being both a cause and consequence. As colonists claimed the wealth and resources of conquered areas, the native populations were left without the resources needed to save themselves from disease and poverty, allowing infection diseases to persist. As countries forged trade routes and discovered better travel technologies, the risk for spreading diseases from one country to another increased rapidly.
Out of necessity, international health cooperation began. The World Health Organization (WHO) cites the International Sanitary Conference in Paris on July 23, 1851, as the beginning of this cooperation. Ten conferences in total took place in the 19th century. Unique for the time, the discussions provided opportunities for medical officials and scientists to debate and exchange ideas. How to address the Asiatic cholera epidemic weighed heavily on leaders’ minds during the conferences, forcing nations to adopt similar tactics to limit further spread of the disease.
In subsequent decades, additional health threats like the plague and yellow fever clarified how international cooperation must remain consistent and robust. Several organizations were created to address global health threats. These organizations later combined to create the WHO that continues to lead international public health today.
WHO and Global Health Cooperation
After 26 member-nations ratified its constitution, the WHO came into official existence on April 7, 1948. Now the WHO works with 194 member states with staff in more than 150 offices around the world. Included in its constitution, the WHO commits to several principles, including the “attainment of peace and security” through global health and “the fullest cooperation of individuals and States.” The WHO also commits to “the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” These principles drive the WHO’s work and are reflected in its achievements.
While an organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) addresses global health threats at a national level, the WHO works to address international concerns while preparing for future ones. Before COVID-19, the WHO released what was considered to be the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Ironically, one of the risks included was a global pandemic. The other threats listed involve pollution, climate change, fragile and vulnerable settings, antimicrobial resistance, and vaccine hesitancy—none of which have the same immediate danger per se as infectious diseases but still pose critical threats to the health of people globally.
Complications with Globalization
Globalization has both positive and negative consequences. Increasing interconnectedness has brought many positive innovations through the diffusion of technology, ideas and human rights as well as an open dialogue between nations. Yet, the negative aspects of globalization need to be recognized too, including pollution and global warming, easier spreading of infectious diseases, new markets for addictive goods like tobacco and the assertion of Western over traditional medicine, among other factors.
The global expansion also led to an increase in urbanization, resulting in crowded environments. The coronavirus spread rapidly throughout the world due to our increasingly globalized society. No country is entirely self-sufficient or isolated. The exchange of goods, services and tourism opens up new channels for global health threats to emerge.
What is Global Health Today?
Global health today encompasses more than just infectious diseases; it involves physical, mental and social health. Noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and heart disease are just as important to study as infectious ones. Global health focuses on specific health issues and their root causes and underlying conditions, such as improper sanitation and disease spreading. An organization like the WHO looks at the many factors that contribute to global health issues. Global health as a field of study advocates for health equity and premises on the idea that we are all responsible for each other’s health. As nations cooperate in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic today, global health and the WHO’s contribution to international health aid are especially crucial.
– Maria Marabito