A Pressing Issue — Lack of Knowledge about Global Health



Woman at USAID Health Event, Ghana

Global health could easily be the most pressing global issue today, due in large part to humanity’s general lack of knowledge about health and what this lack of knowledge means to humanity’s future.

Which disease—from the array of infectious diseases, cancer, tay-sacks, sickle-cell anemia to Alzheimer’s—should we as a world community invest in curing? Should we invest in drugs and therapies, technology and medicine, biotechnology and genetic engineering, more doctors and nurses, or soap and condoms?

All disease is disdainful. Disease is an infringement on human dignity and a treacherous enemy of good health and well being. The lack of knowledge about how to be healthy and protect oneself is strikingly dangerous to the health of the entire. Not only that, it is dangerously paradoxical that in this fast-paced, high-tech, electronic global world that we are no succeeding at helping people everywhere about preventing disease. The fact is that today we cannot get a handle on the continuous spreading of disease, from the gestation and infection, to becoming an epidemic; and we can not get a handle on the continuous suffering in countries that are least informed about disease. Further, most of the diseases could be avoided—even by the simple task of washing one’s hands.

Along with the most pressing issue of global health is the immediate pressing realization that the majority of people who contract deadly diseases do not have knowledge about protecting themselves against the diseases. Further pressing is the fact that we need to educate the public, especially in countries where information is not readily available, about washing hands and using a condom.

Infectious disease is still one of the world’s major causes of death. Ninety percent of deaths from infectious disease are from a handful of specific diseases. These specific diseases are Lower Respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, Diarrheal disease, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Measles.[i] These infectious diseases are largely preventable. Because of the poor living conditions, including poverty, rotten food, tainted drinking water, and lack of skills to deal with the conditions, millions of people are continually contracting these diseases. In 2001, 62% of deaths caused by infectious diseases occurred in Africa, while 5% occurred in Europe. “In 2002, 75% of all deaths due to infectious diseases occurred in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.”[ii]

The tragedy is that these diseases could be prevented. Helping these countries by supply medical aid is vastly important. But it is not enough. We must do all we can to educate the people who are in the most danger of contracting life-threatening disease because they are the very people who know the least about disease. People throughout the world must become knowledgeable, even at the most minimal level, to develop and maintain good health.


Fig. 1. “Deaths in developing countries. Two out of three deaths among children and young adults in Africa and South-East Asia are due to seven causes (ages 0-44).”[1]

pie chart



According to the World Health Organization we nee programs to educate people, “… efforts will be needed to increase people’s control over their own health –through ensuring that people are aware of and seek access to available health interventions and services. Above all, the new partnerships will build on the experience of what works best– drawing on the experience of the success stories featured here.”[iii] One program that is promising is “World Health Day” which is celebrated by 191 countries.[iv]

A different program was celebrated in China where health workers went into the streets of the capital on December, 2003, marking “World AIDS Day.”   These health workers sought to teach prevention in a country whose leaders have promised an aggressive fight against the disease — and a new openness learned during the battle against SARS.[v] While Chinese officials state that 40,000 poor are receiving HIV and AIDS treatments, the issue is educating people to be careful about becoming infected. The Chinese, like elsewhere in the world, change partners and perform unprotected sex. There is also the danger of drug users sharing needles, “… while HIV in China is mostly confined to intravenous drug users and people infected by the buying of tainted blood, the country’s tens of millions of migrant workers could prove ‘the next wave,’ ‘This is such an enormous group, and it is very difficult to know what is happening with them,’ [Seri Tellhier] said.[vi]   Reaching migrants by handing out condoms and putting up posters at railway stations would help bring knowledge to the ill-informed.

In Africa, the tone was a little more upbeat when in 2003 Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stated, “We can win this fight. As Secretary Thompson said before he left for Africa yesterday: ‘People need to know when they should be tested and should know their own HIV status. Our efforts must start with knowledge, because HIV/AIDS has no power over a well-informed person who makes safe, educated decisions regarding his or her health.’[vii]

For example, Diarrheal disease is indirectly the largest killer of children in Africa. Diarrhea itself does not kill, but the gastrointestinal and respiratory problems that diarrhea leads to can kill. Millions die every year from this problem.[viii] One very simple procedure of washing hands with soap after going to the toilet could reduce and even prevent the number of children killed.

This afternoon I read a story written by Rhodes, Melvin, “Money Won’t Solve These Problems,” and which brings my point to a close.

“I don’t remember the exact words her interviewer then used, but he asked a question about the need for funds to educate people in this area. Her response was astounding. “Oh, we’ve tried education, but it doesn’t work.” She went on to explain that the last hope lies with the manufacturers of soap–perhaps they could come up with soap commercial jingles that would make people change the hygiene habits of thousands of years.

“Since education about fundamental hygiene hasn’t worked, should we expect that it will work when it comes to HIV/AIDS? If people won’t change their hygiene practices, are they likely to change their sexual practices if millions more dollars are spent on education? No, they are not.”[ix]

“Governments certainly have a responsibility in this area. But that responsibility can be fulfilled quite easily and cheaply. Billboards (for those who can read) along with radio and television ads (most people in Africa have access to the former, few the latter) should carry a simple message that everybody can understand …”

and which everyone can use: “soap and condoms.”


[i] Global Health Organization, p. 1. Available: http://www.globalhealth.org

[ii] Id. p. 2.

[iii] Id.

[iv] http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/

[v] http://www.thebody.com/content/art29382.html

[vi] Siri Tellier, chairwoman of the U.N. Theme Group on HIV/AIDS in China.

[vii] US Department of Health & Human Services, p. 1, Available: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/news/speeches/aids12012003.htm

[viii] BBC World Service’s News hour included an interview with a doctor from the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London, England

[ix] Rhodes, Melvin. “Money Won’t Solve These Problems,” World Prophecy. Available: http://www.ucg.org/world-news-and-prophecy/money-wont-solve-these-problems


Image Ghanian woman at health event  Author USAID Africa Bureau (USAID/Kasia McCormick) 2012

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