Call for global health geeks to join forces with human rights activists

Editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, wants human rights activists and global health geeks to come together in common cause.

More than 500 public health experts, policy makers and academics from 50 different countries have gathered in Seattle this week to dig deeper into what one of the leaders in the field characterized as having done for global health what the Human Genome Project has done for biomedical science and medicine.

“This is the golden era for global health,” said Julio Frenk, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, on the opening day of the conference.

Part of what makes it golden, Frenk said, is the new Global Burden of Disease Study – a massive worldwide assessment of what’s killing, injuring and disabling people around the planet. The GBD, as its known, was created by some 500 researchers in 187 countries looking through hundreds of millions of reports on nearly 300 causes of death and disability.

GHME crowd

It’s the global health community equivalent of sequencing all human DNA, Frenk said, and a sign that this field has entered its ‘Big Data’ stage. But data alone is not enough, Frenk said, adding that what’s needed is to use this data to create a truly global and ‘pluralistic’ community aimed at improving health.

And just as the human genome project did not proceed without controversy, neither has the Global Burden of Disease. As Lancet editor Richard Horton noted in his comments at the opening session of the Seattle meeting (and in the video above), contained within all these GBD measurements of death and disease are dicey political issues of justice, power and equity.

“Human rights and health metrics is not the most obvious marriage,” Horton said. In fact, he added, the human rights community often tends to look upon the health data community with suspicion, and vice versa. But numbers are not facts, he said, and disease charts do not naturally translate into policy decisions.

The next step for making the best use of this powerful new tool, he said, is to focus on translating the data into meaningful policy decisions and political action.

“We can use these new data, with the combined forces of the human rights and global health community, to make the uncounted count, to make the invisible more visible and to bring more attention to those now marginalized,” said Horton.

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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]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.