Maybe it’s Bono and George Clooney. Maybe’s it’s Facebook and Twitter. Maybe it’s the never-ending news reports about SARS or swine flu.
Whatever the reason, universities across the US are seeing a surge of interest in global health studies. And they’re responding by expanding programs that teach students, in a multi-disciplinary fashion, about improving public health and achieving health equity around the world.
This phenomenon presents immense opportunities, as well as fresh challenges, that academics, political leaders, and physician-scientists need to seize on to sustain the swell in interest. That was the pitch from by Michael Merson, director of the Duke Global Health Institute, at a briefing in Washington today, sponsored by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, which focused on the expansion of global health studies.
Merson noted that the growth has likely been spurred by a variety of factors, from greater visibility of global health as an element of US foreign policy to more resources being invested in global health (i.e. the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Then there are the broader societal changes. He recounted asking a group of Duke freshmen how many had traveled abroad and being shocked to see half of them raise their hands; 40 percent had been to Africa before starting college.
“When I grew up it was a big deal to go to New York and see a Yankees game,” he said. “They are in a whole other world … They’ve seen it all. They’ve heard it all.”
In response to the increased interest in global health studies, Merson and more than a dozen other officials from US and Canadian universities have formed the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. The group’s mission is to cultivate, promote and grow global health programs; the consortium’s second meeting is planned for this September on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, with representatives of more than 50 universities slated to attend.
The group is also planning a survey of academic institutions, to get a firmer handle on the scope of growth in global health programs. (Merson defined global health broadly to include infectious diseases, mental health, societal determinants such as gender and poverty, and environmental threats, among other things.)
Merson said the interest in global health could have many bonus benefits. Take political diplomacy. “Sometimes global health works when other politics don’t work,” Merson said. “Where is the US is most popular now? Africa. Why? PEPFAR.”
Then there are possible scientific dividends. “Global cooperation around science is huge. That’s how we make our discoveries,” he said.
As for the challenges, he said that within academia, “we still have to convince our colleagues as to the validity and sustainability of global health as an academic field” and work to ensure there are reliable career paths for students, among other things.
On the policy level in Washington, Merson argued that current US funding for global health is fragmented and the way the money is divvied up doesn’t always appropriately reflect the need, influenced instead by political or other considerations. And he gave a nod to the current tension between vertical (disease-specific) programs and horizontal efforts (health system strengthening).
“We’re at a very interesting time,” he said, with controversial policy decisions and significant resources at stake.
Merson said university global health programs need to figure out how to partner better with the government, by, for example, expanding existing relationships with NIH and other institutions and forging new ones with the Department of State, which houses the Office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator.
No matter how its done, he said, the global health community can’t afford to miss this moment.
“What’s driving us more than anything is today’s youth and the fact that they want a better world,” he said. And they’re motivated the belief that “health disparities are not something we should tolerate.”