Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass
Are they ambitious? Sure! Can they be achieved? Maybe. Regardless, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the U.N. in September serve as a useful reminder that, as much progress as we've made in improving health globally, there are still many in the world who suffer from curable diseases and lack access to basic health care.
Intended to build on accomplishments made under the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are more expansive and include noncommunicable diseases among the targets for progress by 2030. While impressive gains were made toward achieving the MDGs - in reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating infectious diseases - much remains to be done.
I'm pleased to see the new objectives include the need to improve diagnosis and treatment of chronic, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), enhance mental health, address substance abuse, and reduce injuries and deaths from traffic accidents and exposures to pollutants. They also include goals to provide clean water and sanitation - key to limiting spread of disease - as well as to take action against climate change, another troubling area with implications for health.
Here at Fogarty, we've been working with our grantees for three decades to make progress on these complex issues - through our research and training programs on NCDs, brain disorders across the lifespan, trauma and injury, and tobacco cessation. We're excited to begin a new partnership - called the GEOHealth Hubs initiative - designed to build research and training centers to study environmental and occupational health problems in developing countries. Some of the regional centers will investigate aspects of climate change, air and water pollution and other health hazards.
It's been said, "There is no health without mental health," so it's particularly important that this often overlooked field is included among the SDGs. Fogarty has funded projects to catalyze research in this area for more than 10 years. The toll of mental, neurological and substance use disorders is forecast to climb over the next decades, especially in developing countries, where there is little access to treatment. It's critical we redouble our efforts to learn more about the continuing and long-lasting effects of early life trauma, infectious diseases and malnutrition, and determine effective interventions to reduce suffering from these conditions.
We have just published a journal supplement in Nature that details the pressing research agenda for global brain disorders, an effort involving more than 50 NIH experts, grantees and collaborators, and led by Fogarty's Center for Global Health Studies. I encourage you all to review it, as there is much to be done.
For these and other health problems, more good quality data are needed. As we encourage governments to embrace the SDGs, we will need to offer them ways to measure progress and evidence to inform their policy and funding decisions.
Yet, this is a promising time, with many opportunities to make advances that improve health. By applying innovations, we can drive progress - through genomics, big data and new technologies. As we have seen, even modest investments can bring huge returns.
Finally, I'm delighted the SDGs propose to increase training and retention of the health workforce in developing countries, as well as strengthen capacity for disease surveillance and management of global health risks. That has been at the heart of Fogarty's research and training programs to strengthen scientific capacity in low- and middle-income countries. Most recently, we have helped transform medical education in sub-Saharan Africa, through the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Meanwhile, our Fogarty Scholars and Fellows program has encouraged early-career doctors, dentists, scientists and veterinarians to pursue global health careers. These emerging global health leaders are motivated and ready to tackle the many challenges.
The SDGs' aims are aspirational and it may be a stretch to think we can support them all. But they underscore our unwavering commitment to someday achieve the ultimate goal - ensuring everyone who shares this planet has the opportunity to live a long and healthy life.