What is Global Public Health?
By Sam MacArthur

In the age of globalization, global public health is one of the foremost challenges facing humanity. Not any one nation, not any one coalition of nations, but all of humanity. That’s because global health is not just the work of massive governmental agencies, or international global health organizations, but of people in communities: doctors, nurses, educators, volunteers, and advocates. Fighting disease and spreading health throughout the world is one of the most important missions the human race can undertake in the 21st century, and with modern medicine, communication, and technology, it’s within our reach.

global public health

Global Health vs Public Health

Global health vs public health is partly just a matter of location; global health workers do the same work, in the same way, that domestic public health workers do. That means, in the field, making direct contact with communities: providing medical care to underserved populations; educating people about disease prevention and treatment; and working to alleviate the systemic causes of illness, such as poverty, racism, and oppression.

At the higher levels of administration and policy, global health vs public health means that a system that is extremely, even excessively complex stateside is even more complex on an international scale. Just as in public health in the US, there is no truly centralized global public health system. There are some heavy hitters in international public health, like the World Health Organization and Amnesty International, but the global health system is a patchwork of governmental agencies, private relief organizations, faith-based charities, international cooperatives, local-level networks, and other global health organizations.

That hodgepodge system means that, comparing global health vs public health, effective global health initiatives require political and cultural diplomacy that can be difficult. Just as domestic public health requires strong communication and trust between different agencies and organizations, so does global public health: except that the communication and trust across national, cultural, and language barriers. That’s why specialized MPH in Global Health programs emphasize cultural awareness, international policy, and language skills along with research and theory.

Why is Global Health Important?

To put it simply, global health is important because life in the 21st century is global. While anti-refugee and anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the US has come about in reaction, the fact is that the world has been on the path to globalization since Nixon visited China in 1972, if not even before (the Marshall Plan for post-WWII recovery may in fact have sown the seeds). With globalization of business, accessibility of transportation, and the information afforded by the internet, the world has gotten smaller in all sorts of ways. And with a smaller, more connected world, comes the reality that what affects one nation, affects many.

Why is global health important? Because global health challenges are just that: global. A pandemic in one country or region is no longer just a problem in that region; it’s a problem everywhere. The successful containment of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, for instance, was the result of many years of planning and strategizing by the WHO and the CDC, and it centered on travel – keeping infected people from spreading the virus. Global health challenges like natural disasters and resource scarcity result in human suffering, causing people to flee their homeland as refugees, causing further global health threats. One domino causes another to fall.

In much of the world, rapid industrialization and development has intensified global health challenges and threats, leading the UN to adopt its Sustainable Development Goals. The UN-backed SDGs are a prime example of how world organizations work toward global health, as it emphasizes the connectedness of global health. Eliminating poverty and hunger are goals aligned with clean water and sanitation, while sustainability, responsible consumption and production, and climate action are explicitly tied to the overall well-being and health of populations. It’s global public health defined.

Global Health Challenges and How We are Meeting Them

The main global health challenges faced by the international public health system can be narrowed down to three main issues:

Resource Scarcity

Resource scarcity is one of the most significant global health challenges, especially because so many pandemics, epidemics, and other illnesses are directly to resource scarcity. The lack of clean drinking water in many developing nations, for instance, is the immediate cause of epidemics like cholera, typhoid, and water-borne parasites. Global public health works to fight both the causes of resource scarcity, and the consequences; for instance, The Water Project has been working for years to provide clean water for remote regions of Africa. Meanwhile, The Carter Center has nearly eradicated the Guinea worm, a water-borne parasite that once afflicted millions in Africa and Asia, primarily using educational campaigns to prevent infection.

Epidemics and Pandemics

Global health is threatened by all sorts of diseases and illnesses, many of which can be treated with existing medicines and techniques, if the people could only access them. Some of the largest global health challenges in the 21st century include HIV and AIDS, diarrheal diseases (such as cholera, above), tuberculosis, and malaria – almost all of which can be prevented or treated with modern medicine and sanitation. The Gates Foundation, for example, has made major progress stopping one of the worst global health challenges, HIV, in Africa and Asia by educating local communities and increasing awareness of prevention methods.

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Natural disasters, like Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico, or the volcanic eruptions in Guatemala, are some of the most common global health challenges that public health professionals face. Along with uncontrollable natural disasters, communities throughout the developing world are affected by man-made disasters caused by pollution; much of the unsafe drinking water throughout Africa and Asia is not because of natural causes, but because of unchecked pollution in rapidly developing urban areas. Public health experts in disaster management are crucial to reducing the destruction that disasters cause for communities.

How Do We Create Global Health Security?

Protecting human life, improving quality of life, and providing for the health and well-being of future generations is the definition of security. As experts in global public health realize, global health is more than vaccines and medicines; investing in global health makes the whole world safer. By eliminating scarcity and disease, we eliminate many of the root causes of terrorism, civil war, economic instability, and other unrest. Healthier populations are happier populations, more productive populations, and safer populations. By just eliminating the need to find fresh water, or curing treatable disabilities, people are able to reach their full potential and flourish, and when people flourish, the whole nation flourishes. That’s what global public health means.