By:Keenan Brugh Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables
In today’s interconnected world, health issues in one country can quickly spread and challenge others.
Transnational health calls for serious collaboration. That was the goal of the Biennial of the Americas’ Roundtable on Health. By bringing health experts and leaders together, the forum gave rise to intelligent dialogue based on experience and offered practical approaches regarding hemispheric concerns. Some of the topics discussed included responses to contagious outbreaks, clean water and sanitation issues, and the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases. Throughout the discussion, it became apparent that the issues surrounding health are inseparably tied to other roundtable topics, such as education, poverty levels, and environmental resource use.
Dr. José Angel Córdova Villalobos, Mexico’s Minister of Health, explained what it was like to recognize and respond to a contagious new strain of flu like H1N1. The pandemic was a sobering reminder of how closely the world’s health is tied together and that what happens on one side of the planet can quickly affect those on the opposite side. This reality begs cooperation. Preventative preparation and planning along with real time communication is critical to be able to respond quickly and effectively.
Having systemic procedures in place allowed Mexico to quickly recognize that they were, in fact, experiencing an outbreak of a new flu strain. Despite interest group concerns about initial economic impacts, transparency allowed for a much better international understanding and response. Action plans such as education campaigns, vaccine distribution, and thermal scanners in airports allowed contamination control efforts to be more effective. Furthermore, the cooperation of the Mexican public in conjunction with the ministry’s campaign was outstanding. Shutting down public places in Mexico City, the most populated city in Mexico, was a huge accomplishment. Critically important was the open communication with officials from other governments. Such collaborative efforts allowed a quicker and more complete world understanding and prevented an even worse pandemic. These crucial actions helped to prevent infections, saved lives, and reduced the economic impact of the virus. This case serves as a great example of ideas that have been implemented and how these actions will influence the future of transnational health concerns. Preventative preparation and planning along with real time communication is critical to be able to respond quickly and effectively.
Clean water and sanitation access are also critical factors for basic health. “In Central and South America, one of five do not have access to good clean water,” said roundtable moderator Dr. Douglas Jackson of Project C.U.R.E. An enormous amount of time and money is lost because people must travel long distances to collect water which prevents, primarily women and children, from working or attending school, further detracting from the economy. Additionally, those who become ill from waterborne diseases experience extreme pain and often do not have access to health care. In fact, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death of children under five in Haiti. Even before the earthquake, children could expect to fall ill between four and six times a year. Sanitation and infrastructure improvements have been made in many countries, but people are facing continual challenges. “In Central and South America, one out of five do not have access to good clean water.” - Dr. Douglas Jackson
The Central American Water Tribunal has issued a warning about water shortages in the region’s future. They say that the amount of available water per capita has dropped by 60% since 1950 and will continue to decline. Human environmental impacts play an important role in this decline. In El Salvador, for example, rivers often run dry in the summer months because excessive tree clearing has altered the water cycle, explained Mauricio Cermeno of the Salvadoran Ecological Union. People can make changes by being future-oriented, like Colombia’s National Planning Department which is working with cities to make plans to prevent a severe municipal water shortage in the future.
The great progress in health over the past 50 years is due to the combined efforts of local care providers and regional and worldwide coordination organizations such as the World Health Organization. Dr. Jon Andrus, Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization, has had success in many aspects of responding to transnational threats of communicable diseases like polio. He says that, “Before, we lived in an era where infectious diseases were the biggest threat, but now, even in developing countries, the greatest cause of death is non-communicable diseases.” Of course contagious diseases still remain a threat, but this change is a sign of the progress that has been made and the new challenges that must still be faced. Dr. Andrus believes the health gains achieved through safe water, immunization, and sanitation will be reversed if we don’t tackle childhood obesity. “We see a lot of people who have what could be considered a self-induced disease,” says Dr. Patricia Gabow, CEO of Denver Health and Hospital. “We need to give people the tools to take control of their own health,” said Dr. Jeffrey Sturchio, President of Global Health Councils.
This Roundtable was an eye opening experience. Health is not an isolated issue but it is inextricably linked to other concerns. Health requires cooperation between individuals, communities, health care professionals, businesses, governments, and international organizations. When asked about the value of events like the Biennial Roundtables, Dr. Jon Andrus said, “You can always meet someone who has a connection that can help you with your mission’s work.” He said, “People working together are the key to a healthier future."