Global health—what does that mean exactly? It isn’t the word “health” that gives us pause. It isn’t the word “global” either. But put the two words together, and people are not sure if it means health in developed countries as well as health in developing countries. Yet we know that “global” means the entire world. Anyway, why does it matter?

Commonly, we tend to think that health issues in developing countries refers to infectious diseases, while health issues in developed countries refers to chronic medical conditions. News of health issues in developing countries focuses on tropical diseases such as Ebola or diseases that have been eradicated in the developed nations such as polio and smallpox. In developed countries, news or feature stories on how to take care of our health focus on diabetes, heart attacks or strokes.

When diseases such as Ebola emerge in a developed country such as the U. S., we are jolted by the knowledge—knowledge we already have—that infectious diseases know no geographic boundaries. Ebola is not the only tropical disease to reach the U. S.

The chikungunya virus has reached a cumulative total of 2,500 cases since 2013 in the U. S. Erik Iverson, President of Business and Operations at the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, expects a “dramatic and well-reported increase in the number of chikungunya cases suffered in the U.S. over the next couple years—particularly from Florida up through the Eastern Seaboard.”

Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted from human to human by the bites of infected female mosquitoes. Fever and debilitating joint pain are the outstanding symptoms. It has no cure but is usually not permanent or fatal. It can occasionally cause other health problems, however, such as eye, neurological, heart and gastrointestinal complications. It is a disease associated with Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. In recent decades it has spread to Europe and the Americas.

Leprosy, another tropical disease, also exists in the U. S. One hundred cases are reported every year, mostly in the south. No one knows exactly where it is coming from. Researchers and health officials have named armadillos as the source in the U. S., but some U. S. victims have had no access to armadillos.

Tuberculosis, is another disease that knows no boundaries as World TB Day reminds us with the past theme “tuberculosis anywhere is tuberculosis everywhere.” London is now considered to be the TB center of Europe, and cities in the U. S.—Los Angeles, Seattle, and Indianapolis—have each had a significant number of cases.

Swine flu and avian flu are not diseases of the past either. The swine flu is still part of the seasonal flu vaccine in the U. S. While avian flu poses a very low threat to infecting humans, it does cause a huge risk to our food supply which in turn creates economic havoc for our farmers. May 2015, saw the worst outbreak of avian flu in our nation.

Iowa, our largest producer of eggs, and Minnesota, our largest producer of turkeys, were hit the hardest. Iowa declared a state of emergency as egg prices as well as fear of buying anything related to poultry rose. Minnesota turkey farmers spent $7 million trying to prevent the spread of the disease. Approximately 41 million chickens and turkeys were destroyed in Iowa and Minnesota combined due to the avian flu. Minnesota has just been cleared by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health to restock their farms.

Recently, I hesitated to buy my favorite eggs due to the exaggerated price. I buy them because they are pasteurized, and I have a fear of salmonella having bought a dozen that was infected not long ago. Luckily, I had hard boiled the one egg I ate from the package before I knew it was recalled. They are usually significantly more expensive than even the eggs that are cage free. But when I saw the price had gone up even more, I wondered about our economy—and with good reason it turns out. But salmonella wasn’t the culprit, avian flu was.

If the avian flu affects our Thanksgiving this year, as a nation, we may take more notice. This may cause more awareness that illnesses anywhere can be illnesses everywhere. But awareness isn’t enough. According to Iverson, we are regrettably not concentrating our time, attention and research on these potential domestic health care problems. “[T]oo often, we assume that diseases like TB, chikungunya or leprosy are ‘global’ dangers, only affecting poor people in developing countries, rather than threats to the U.S.”

Ebola, avian flu and swine flu are profound examples of diseases that all too quickly affect the world. The Global Health Technologies Coalition’s 2015 Policy Report reminds us that if we are not prepared with the essential tools and systems to fight infectious diseases worldwide, they “can have devastating regional and international impact.”

The meaning of global health matters because as the GHTC analysis reiterates, “No matter how geographically distant a threat may seem, a threat to some is a threat to all.”

Janet Quinn

Sources: KARE-TV,, World Health Organization 1, World Health Organization 2, Xconomy
Photo: Stroke Smart