Pope Francis embraced and clasped hands with prison inmates in Philadelphia on Sunday, the last day of his United States visit. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

2015 – A Year of Highs and Lows, but a New Global Health Leader Emerges

Credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Credit Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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With the close of 2015, we are wrapping up a year of impressive highs and tragic lows in global health. Here are some of the highlights …

The recent climate change accord signed last month in Paris by most of the nations of the world acknowledged a foundation for further global commitments to work on climate change. The importance of recognizing global warming as a major global health threat was a landmark for 2015. Global accords at the UN also brought nations to agree to a new round of “sustainable” development goals with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. (See: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org)

The 2015 efforts to contain the Ebola virus’s most recent epidemic, which started in West Africa in February of 2014, finally saw success. In addition, via an impressive, international public-private enterprise, a new and an efficacious Ebola vaccine was fast-tracked and successfully tested.

Many have noted that the size and duration of the recent Ebola epidemic was a global catastrophe, which did not need to occur. The lack of functional health systems in the region and the dearth of physicians and nurses, mixed with the ostrich-like and anemic 2014 response of the WHO and some key local and international agencies, made the epidemic itself become the large global health tragedy of this past year.

The continued humanitarian crises of displaced families and communities created by violence and by lack of social structures has plagued 2015. Vast numbers from the Middle East and northern Africa have made or have tried to make their way to better lives in other countries. The outgoing UNHCR chief, Antonio Guterres, has noted that with the size of the refugee migration, “For the first time political leaders took it seriously.” Many communities worldwide are helping, while some are turning their backs or making it very difficult for the refugees. We can see this lack of compassion, at times, in a country of immigrants such as the United States.

New outbreaks of rare infections and the continued morbidities and mortality of the existing pandemics of HIV, TB and malaria occurred in 2015. Global funding for known effective measures to treat and prevent HIV and TB unfortunately continued its relative decline this last year. Malaria continues to be a global problem, but a partially effective vaccine was released this past year and large inroads into cubing this parasitic infection have occurred. (See Harvard’s site: www.defeatingmalaria.harvard.edu)

The improved appreciation of the global epidemics of both obesity and poor nutrition, along with attacking food insecurity have not translated into improvements in these problems overall. Anti-smoking efforts march on with some continued benefits in developed countries, but smoking and continued facilitation of the export of tobacco to developing countries expands this most preventable cause of death. Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030.  (See CDC fact sheets: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/)

With the adverse effects of conflicts, the known pandemics and the diseases of poverty continuing their march in 2015, the year should still celebrate the recognition that people of all walks of life are making a difference – one step at a time. New environmentalists, new global health specialists and a new generation of leaders with an appreciation for global health have expanded in 2015.

But, who was the Global Health Leader of 2015?

Although in 2015 and before, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon certainly should on the list of great global health leaders trying to stem global warming, and other calamities, perhaps the one 2015 leader who may have the greatest future global health impact is Pope Francis.

Pope Francis - Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

If one considers that two of our greatest threats to health are poverty and global warming, both of which affect or will affect so many determinants of health, then perhaps our greatest global health advocate this last year was the Pontiff himself. Pope Francis issued a papal statement, called an encyclical, on environmental degradation. More than just extensively outlining the science and the political and financial agreements that might make a difference, the encyclical creates the moral statement that fighting global warming is an individual choice that all of us must make. Fighting global warming is an individual’s moral choice to care for our children’s future, to care for our planet and to care for all organisms that share the planet with us. This one charismatic leader has helped rally most of the world to have interest in the urgent global health issue of global warming, as he also has for our moral obligation to address poverty and its serious impact on health.

The above list of global health highs and lows for 2015 is certainly not exhaustive, to be sure. The list of leaders who have made extreme differences this year also is not included. The one global health leader dramatically emerging on the scene this last year, though, is very clear. I, for one, am praying for the Pontiff’s continued work and for my increased awareness of how I can help this work each day.

Here’s to a healthier 2016!

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