Diplomacy: a powerful force to improve global health

July / August 2015 | Volume 14, Issue 4

​Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

Global health diplomacy is a powerful force that, when deployed effectively, can bring countries together to advance scientific discoveries, stimulate collaborations and ultimately relieve human suffering. Even when relations between countries are strained, health can be a compelling cause all parties can rally around.

Ebola has been such an issue, drawing resources and experts from around the world to help track the outbreak, study the disease and test possible vaccines or treatments to contain it. Although officials may have been slow to raise the alarm, the resources that were eventually mobilized were significant.

The Ebola outbreak has been a wake-up call to the international community and a reminder to us all that diseases know no borders. Global health security relies on strong surveillance and robust treatment and prevention systems. We cannot operate in isolation and we are all only as safe as our weakest link.

These issues were the main focus of the 68th World Health Assembly, held in May in Geneva, where as part of the U.S. delegation, I joined policymakers, administrators and scientists gathered to share lessons learned and consider how to strengthen global capacity. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell urged the community to prepare for the next health threat.

"Whether it's a new outbreak of Ebola, the ongoing priority to fight AIDS, or our remaining struggle to conquer polio, each nation must be ready to act and have the infrastructure that makes action possible," she said in her address to the Assembly.

In addition to the valuable dialogue among health ministers, much was also accomplished on the sidelines, where connections made and relationships forged may generate benefits for years to come, advancing initiatives that are planned as well as responding to crises that are not.

The forum enabled information sharing on a number of pressing issues, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), antimicrobial resistance and tuberculosis transmission, in addition to the growing problem of noncommunicable diseases including cancer and heart disease.

The gathering also provided the opportunity for us to engage with some of our collaborators in the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI). By improving training for health care workers and scientists, we are strengthening the care delivery platform developed for HIV/AIDS, and expanding the depth and breadth of health care services available across sub-Saharan Africa. By establishing better disease monitoring and more effective prevention and treatment, health security will improve for us all.

On Wednesday, July 29, 2015, we'll welcome to the NIH campus Rwanda's health minister, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, who has been at the forefront of implementing evidence-based strategies in her country. Health services now reach about 90 percent of the population and it's notable that the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer has been more widely administered in Rwanda than in the U.S.

A high-level delegation from China, led by Vice Premier Liu Yandong, visited NIH in June to discuss ways to strengthen ongoing collaborations related to global health security, including infectious diseases such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. (See the related article, US-China renew commitment to global health security.) By renewing an agreement between the two countries to collaborate to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks, we are ensuring the timely and transparent exchange of information that is so critical to public health.

Meanwhile, it was fortuitous that Cuba was the location for a recent WHO consultation on vaccine issues. While there, I had the opportunity to speak with several health officials and scientists and identified numerous shared interests that are ripe for collaboration. Despite its economic difficulties, Cuba has been very successful in improving the health of its citizens, increasing their longevity and contributing advances related to meningitis, hepatitis, diabetes and cancer. Cuban doctors are now working in more than 50 countries around the world. In Sierra Leone, they served in U.S. hospitals built especially to treat patients in the Ebola outbreak, a connection between our two countries that we haven't witnessed for 50 years!

We know that Americans don't hold a monopoly on great ideas - they can come from anywhere. Through science diplomacy, we can bring the world's best minds to bear on Ebola and other complicated challenges. By working together, and inspiring each other, we are more likely to speed discoveries that will improve the health of all the world's people.

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