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WHO report highlights chronic diseases & lack of global health strategy


The World Health Organization has published its annual health report for 2012 and this year decided to “put the spotlight on the growing problem of non-communicable diseases.

Here are some of the news stories spawned by the WHO report:

Reuters/MSNBC Heart disease, diabetes spreading to poor regions

AP/Washington Post Diseases of affluence are spreading worldwide

Voice of America Non-communicable diseases cause most deaths worldwide

UN Dispatch The Good, Bad and Mixed News in World Health Statistics

This focus on the NCDs, (non-communicable diseases) is certainly legitimate since they are, as a general category, major contributors to the global burden of disease. But another way to look at this, of course, is that the WHO report has turned the spotlight away from other diseases.

Why the focus this year on diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses? Why has the attention been shifted away from the still-expanding HIV-AIDS pandemic, the threat of drug-resistant tuberculosis or malaria?

One easy answer is that the WHO annual statistics report always picks a theme and this year’s flavor is chronic disease.

Before, it was AIDS. Another year, it was TB or malaria. To WHO’s credit, one year the organization focused the attention on the much-neglected problem of mental illness worldwide. Another time, the spotlight was on deaths from accidents (which is a much bigger contributor to global mortality than you might think).

All of these are legitimate health concerns. But the nagging suspicion — or perhaps just inkling — you get from all this is that the shifting spotlight indicates no real strategy for global health.

I’ve long been disturbed by the lack of a clear, comprehensive strategy in global health — as well as the lack of a clear definition of what the hell we even mean by global health. Many tell me to lighten up, that the diversity of opinion and a de-centralized approach to the fight against disease is actually a good thing.

I’m not so sure, and I’m not alone in my uncertainty. See this post from the Center for Global Development’s Amanda Glassman and Kate McQueston Making Priority Setting a Priority for Global Health, which offers links to other related posts.

Update: Here is Amanda’s more recent perspective published in the British Medical Journal.

Kate Kelland of Reuters earlier this week also did a great report on the ‘squishiness’ of the WHO health statistics and the debate over how best to measure the burden of disease globally. It’s worth a read and mentions a group of Seattle number-crunchers, at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (e.g. a recent report on malaria) who are trying to bring more reliability and perhaps order to all this.

But, clearly, it’s not just a matter of improving the numbers. The international community has no consensus on what we mean by global health, let alone consensus on which problems deserve the most attention and resources.



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.