Thanks to the help of a skilled health worker, a newborn finally takes its first breath in Uganda. A man living with HIV in Swaziland successfully suppresses the virus in his bloodstream. A car crash victim in Malawi receives the critical care he needs.
More than at any time in history, good health for all is a real possibility. The technology, scientific advancement, and remarkable understanding of disease now available to the medical and nursing community show the progress we have made. As a career physician, I have seen modern medicine rescue people from the brink of death with the power of machines, medicines, and smart minds.
The successes aren’t just in developed countries — they’re global. For example, the number of people newly infected with HIV around the world has stopped growing. There are now 18.2 million people undergoing treatment for HIV, up from 15.8 million in the last year alone. Equally encouraging, new infections in children are down 50 percent since 2010.
Yet as we acknowledge this success, major gaps remain. One woman dies every hour from a complication of pregnancy or childbirth in Tanzania. In sub-Saharan Africa, where my organization works, almost 400,000 people still die from malaria each year. This disease costs the continent an estimated $12 billion in lost revenue each year, even though it could be controlled for a fraction of that amount.
The huge differences between health care in the developed world and the developing world are due, in part, to the particularly dire shortage of health care workers. Tanzania, for instance, has only 22 anesthesiologists for a population of more than 45 million, which means few Tanzanians have access to safe surgery, safe childbirth, surgery, or critical care. In Malawi, the numbers are equally stark: Fewer than 5,000 nurses bravely serve nearly 18 million people.
So while many of the ingredients required to achieve good health for all may exist, there are two different realities: one in which diagnosis and treatment by a team of health professionals is the norm, and one in which that scenario remains out of reach.
With health care challenges of our own, why should Americans worry about this global gap? Because it is also important for us here at home. Better health — and basic health care — in other countries is important for global security. Stopping an epidemic at its origin, while also the right thing to do, is the most cost-effective means to prevent disease here. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which infected tens of thousands of people and strained government coffers, treating just two patients with Ebola in the United States cost more than $1.1 million.
Improved health is also often a prerequisite for long-term economic development and political stability. Data indicate that health investments in East Asia preceded the widely known economic growth the region has experienced. For many households, health is the difference between whether you live above or below the poverty line, whether your children can attend school, or whether you have access to clean water. Furthermore, the failure of governments to provide basic services — in health or otherwise — can erode trust and promote instability.
The cost of investing in global health is not nearly as substantial as many believe. Foreign aid, of which global health programs are just a part, comprises less than 1 percent of the US federal budget. This traditionally small amount has helped accomplish a great deal of good. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), for example, launched by President George W. Bush, has been one of the most successful public health programs in history.
My organization, Seed Global Health, aims to improve global health by addressing the shortages in trained health care workers in sub-Saharan Africa. We bring in US health professionals when a crisis hits, and also to have them deliver care as needed. A more important strategy is to have these US health professionals help create a self-sustaining pipeline of doctors, midwives, and nurses in the countries that need them the most.
We work toward that goal through a program that helps repay medical school debt for US health providers who volunteer in Africa for one year to train future health care workers. To date, Seed has invested $3.5 million in such health professionals. Their work in sub-Saharan Africa helps them further hone their skills and also better enables them to work in underserved areas and underserved specialties, if they choose, when they return home.
By growing and supporting a robust global health workforce through programs like ours and many others, we have the chance to build on our nation’s great legacy of improving the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people.
In 2011, five former secretaries of state — Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and George Shultz — bridged their political differences to deliver a strong message to Congress on the value of investing in global health and development: “Development and diplomacy programs are a cost-effective tool to tackle the root causes of conflict and extremism, build new markets for U.S. goods and services, respond to humanitarian crises, and demonstrate America’s proud tradition of goodwill and global leadership,” they wrote to Congress.
These words still ring true today. For the US, the returns on investing in global health are a bargain that cannot be ignored.
Vanessa Kerry, MD, is the CEO and cofounder of Seed Global Health, which works to expand health care access in sub-Saharan Africa.