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Healing the World

The New Physician November 2004
HIV/AIDS, polio, tuberculosis
and diabetes are among the World Health Organization’s top public health concerns for the 21st century.

In 1969, U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart announced, “It’s time we close the books on infectious disease.” These were the heady days of the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Medicare and the space program, as well as an era of rapidly advancing technology. Scientists believed they could put microbes in their place and that the discoveries of “wonder drugs” and vaccines would relegate dreaded diseases to history books.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the world is quite a different place. Infectious disease remains a leading cause of death worldwide and ranks among the top 10 causes in the United States. The advent of close to 30 new diseases within the past two decades—including AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, hepatitis C and Ebola—has been a humbling experience. Tuberculosis (TB), syphilis, gonorrhea and other old scourges once thought under control are re-emerging with a vengeance. And noncommunicable diseases and health issues may eventually threaten global health even more than infectious illnesses.

Many nations and communities lack the resources—financial, structural and personnel—to attend to these problems. This is where an agency such as the World Health Organization (WHO) can help. Established in 1948 as part of the United Nations (UN), the WHO acts as a coordinating authority on international public health, striving to help all people attain the highest possible level of wellness. Despite being part of the UN, the WHO has a significant amount of independence; it maintains its own budget, sets its own program priorities, and its 192 member states elect its leader, the director-general.

The organization’s priorities have shifted during the past half-century as old problems become resolved and new ones take their places. But many of the health problems afflicting the world in 1948 continue today. TB and malaria remain urgent priorities for large portions of the global population, and nations still struggle with epidemics, natural disasters, famine and wars. In addition, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women persist, jeopardizing the health of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

With all of these concerns to tend to, where do global health leaders place their priorities? The New Physician spoke with WHO representatives and other experts about their major focal areas for the beginning of the 21st century. Here’s what they had to say.