By Alan Pearson and Jason Haile
On October 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its annual World Health Report. This year’s report, entitled “Primary Health Care – Now More Than Ever,” identifies major deficits and challenges facing health care systems worldwide.
The WHO asserts that health care today has become too narrowly focused on disease management, is unaffordable for much of the world’s population, and is inaccessible for many in the developing world due to a lack of services and infrastructure within health care systems. However, as WHO Director Dr. Margaret Chan states, “A world that is greatly out of balance in matters of health is neither stable nor secure.”
The report argues that social stability is threatened as “health care systems lose focus on providing fair access to care, their ability to invest in resources wisely, and their capacity to meet the needs of people everywhere.” These problems are particularly acute in developing nations; but even in the most developed nations, people living outside of major metropolitan areas are suffering from a lack of health care accessibility. Poverty also contributes to decreased access to health care as well, as individuals who lack adequate resources seek health care only when sick.
Rather than strengthening comprehensive primary and preventative health care, in the last two decades there has been a notable shift toward short-term curative and emergency medical care. Ironically, this increasing focus on treating specific diseases too often further diverts funding and resources away from the development of robust health care systems, including the basic infrastructure needed to ensure public health such as hospitals, services, and staff.
The WHO states that a return to primary health care must be adopted to remedy the challenges facing public health care today. A primary health care system, with its holistic approach, would revolve around preventing disease in addition to treating and curing ailments. Accordingly, the WHO stresses that public policies should emphasize building infrastructure, increasing access to health care, and restoring the public’s confidence in health care systems.
How does this issue relate to the problem of biological weapons? Simply put, a health care system that lacks the necessary infrastructure to adequately treat patients cannot effectively resolve a public health crisis. Whether that crisis is in the form of HIV/AIDS, a flu pandemic, or the result of a deliberate biological attack, a robust health care infrastructure must be in place to effectively counter threats to public health.
Given the expanding nature of public health threats, efforts to strengthen public health systems should extend across the board to all government programs committed to the security and stability of global health. For example, the National Academy of Sciences recently argued that the Defense Department’s Biological Threat Reduction Program, which engages countries of the former Soviet Union, has been too narrowly focused on biological weapons agents and should give greater priority to building public health research, surveillance, and response capacity in order to address naturally occurring infectious diseases of concern to both the United States and partner nations.
Such an approach would not only help halt the spread of infectious diseases – the foundation of public health – but also would also provide a more effective means for engaging other nations in efforts to prevent and contain biological attacks.