On July 23, 1851, an event took place in Paris that shaped the modern world – an event without which many of us would not be alive today. It was the first ever International Sanitary Conference and the first occasion on which experts came together from around the world to identify ways that they could work together to limit the spread of disease. It led to the 1907 establishment of the International Office of Public Hygiene, without whose efforts the 1918 influenza pandemic might have killed far more than 50 million people; and it led, in turn, to the founding of the World Health Organization in 1946. The work of these bodies has helped us to understand that we all live in the same world and that when it comes to health, it’s all or nothing.
Our interconnected world
In 2017 (the most recent year for which figures are available), the International Air Transport Association reported that airlines carried 4.1 billion passengers. In turn, every one of those passengers would have been carrying two to six pounds of microbes. We are more mobile as individuals than ever before, which means that the bacteria, viruses, prions and parasites living in our bodies are also more mobile, and while most of them are harmless, it’s easy to see how disease can spread. Keeping infectious diseases under control makes international cooperation a necessity.
Managing infectious disease
The most important aspect of disease control in this interconnected world is monitoring, which enables the WHO and national organizations like the CDC to track dangerous pathogens, identify at-risk areas and intercede with measures like vaccination or quarantine as needed. To be successful, these efforts require the participation of doctors all around the world. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interests to ensure that all individuals, no matter how remote their home or how little money they have, can see a doctor. Areas where people can’t access regular check-ups, especially if they also face poor sanitary conditions, can create reservoirs of disease that present a danger to everyone.
Tackling the consequences of climate change
Across the world, disease risks are changing as a consequence of climate change. Insects, birds and mammals that carry diseases are moving to new areas as temperatures and weather patterns change, and increased flooding also means that poor sanitation is a growing problem in some areas. To keep disease under control, it’s important that each newly affected population is able to learn from those with longstanding experience of dealing with climate-sensitive infectious diseases.
Improving our potential
Global cooperation isn’t just about fending off health hazards – it’s also about moving healthcare forward. One area where this is particularly important is genetic medicine, which focuses on how we can fight disease based on better understanding our individual variation. It can mean recognizing that some drugs are more useful in patients with specific gene variants, and it can even mean reprogramming cells to provide us with better protection or enhanced abilities. The more diverse the people whose genomes we can study, the more we can learn.
Because medical traditions have developed separately in several different parts of the world, there’s still a great deal of work to be done to bring these various practices and treatment methods into alignment in order to enhance global health. It’s also vital that people in different countries are able to work together in order to tackle emerging diseases. The NMPA (National Medical Products Association) in China has recently been commended for its willingness to share information that is helping experts everywhere to make progress in tackling the new coronavirus. Without this kind of engagement, progress would be much slower on every new pathogen.
Improving general healthcare around the world also increases global prosperity, reduces conflict and emergency migration, and thus benefits everyone. Working with women has proven particularly advantageous, reducing deaths in childbirth, improving infant health, decreasing family size and, by way of this, making it easier for women to enter the workforce and bring money into their families and communities. Where people are healthier, they are less likely to need external support and more likely to progress in education, with long-term benefits for the economies of which they are a part.
Working to improve healthcare globally reduces risk for every single one of us. Over time, it’s also likely to enhance opportunities for us all. It enabled us to wipe out smallpox, and we have the potential to do that with other diseases so that ultimately, we can all lead healthier, more productive, happier lives.