Fighting Disease around the World

USA TODAY, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Fighting Disease around the World


Ensuring basic health care for people in low-income countries is critical to eradicating poverty and stabilizing world population, according to Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., and author of several books, including Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. While heart disease and cancer (largely the diseases of aging), obesity, and smoking dominate health concerns in industrial countries, in developing nations, infectious diseases are the overriding concern. Besides AIDS, the focus is on diarrhea, malaria, measles, and tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. Child mortality is high, as progress in reaching the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality two-thirds by 2015 is lagging badly

Along with the elimination of hunger, ensuring access to a safe and reliable supply of water for the estimated 1,100,000,000 people who lack it is essential to better health for all, Brown emphasizes. The realistic option in many cities now may be to bypass efforts to build costly water-based sewage removal and treatment plants and to opt for water-free waste disposal systems that do not disperse disease pathogens. This switch would help alleviate water scarcity, reduce the dissemination of disease agents in water systems, and help close the nutrient cycle--a win-win-win situation.

Brown relates that one of the most impressive health gains has come from a campaign initiated by a little-heralded nongovernmental group, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), which teaches mothers how to prepare an oral rehydration solution at home to treat diarrhea simply by adding salt and sugar to water. BRAC has succeeded in dramatically reducing infant and child deaths from diarrhea in a country that is densely populated, poverty-stricken, and poorly educated.

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Seeing this great success, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) used BRAC's model for its worldwide diarrhea disease treatment program. This global administration of a remarkably simple oral rehydration technique has been extremely effective--reducing deaths from diarrhea among children from 4,600,000 in 1980 to around 1,500,000 today. Few investments have saved so many lives at such a low cost.

The war against infectious diseases is being waged on a broad front, Brown reports. Perhaps the leading privately funded life-saving activity in the world today is the childhood immunization program. In an effort to fill the gap in this global program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested close to $2,000,000,000 to protect children from infectious diseases like measles. …

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