Apparently, it’s not enough to wipe a disease off the face of the earth.
Workers and organizations tackling acute global health problems must also address the systemic factors that gave rise to it in the first place.
That was the message that Dave Ross, CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, had for about 80 foreign Fulbright scholars, who convened at the Georgia State University School of Public Health in February to learn from the city’s global health community.
In addition to hearing from Mr. Ross, their schedule included a look at how Atlanta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church reaches out to the city’s HIV-positive community, a trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters and museum and a visit to the Carter Center, which focuses on eradicating neglected tropical diseases, among other issues.
The group of international scholars studying at institutions around the U.S. included professionals from various disciplines and nations, like a former Afghanistan Ministry of Health spokesman, a doctor from Myanmar and a pediatric nurse from Indonesia.
Wherever health workers are addressing big problems in the world, Mr. Ross said, they need extensive, deep, reliable data. But they also need to stay personal and take a holistic view of health, whether Atlanta or in Africa.
“We have to maintain a focus on seeing the facts but also seeing the faces,” Mr. Ross said, citing a quote from the organization’s founder, former CDC director Bill Foege. “We’ve got to pursue social justice with facts.”
Health starts with equity, Mr. Ross said. Life expectancies tend to fall as inequality rises, so health workers must become less reactive, more preventive and always stay focused on building the entire social system even while tackling specific challenges. River blindness, for instance, spread through repeated fly bites, not only affects the productivity of the man, but also of the child who has to care for him, Mr. Ross said.
The Task Force aims to break cycles like this in big partnerships that “make the ambitious feasible,” from mass drug administration programs that have seen hundreds of millions of vaccines and doses of medicine distributed around the world, to field epidemiologist training that helps nations build systems to identify and respond to outbreaks like Ebola.
A program to fight blinding trachoma in Malawi, for instance, taught villagers how to build toilets, leading to a certification from the national government.
“That has become an element of pride in that country,” Mr. Ross said. While addressing two key elements of fighting the bacterial eye infection — sanitation and face washing — the toilets also built the foundation for future public-health efforts.
Stamping out diseases has a far-reaching return on investment that lasts well beyond the life spans of those who contribute, he said. Since smallpox was wiped out for good in 1980, the world’s population has jumped from 4.4 billion to 7.4 billion.
After Dr. Ross’s speech, students from Uzbekistan, Mongolia and China peppered him with thoughtful questions, suggesting that through the program, GSU’s public health school is making good on its promise to educate discussions among future global health leaders. It has 18 Fulbright students now working on graduate degrees counts more than 50 Fulbrighters as master’s or Ph.D. alumni.
“Our international student body and alumni hail from more than 40 countries,” said Michael Eriksen, dean of the School of Public Health, in a statement. “We are very proud of our track record of educating Fulbright students who are now working to improve health in their home countries. Hosting this seminar is an extension of our work to train public health professionals who will have a positive impact across the globe and for generations to come.”
The Task Force is soon moving into its new headquarters in Decatur, remodeled with the help of a $2 million grant from the Hilton Foundation.
The Fulbright program is the U.S. government’s top international exchange program, sending U.S. students and educators abroad and bringing in foreign scholars.
To learn more about that grant and get more details on the organization’s work, read this Global Atlanta story.