Putting Global Issues in Perspective

Last night around 59 million people watched the 3rd and final presidential debate on foreign policy. They were treated to an at times civil, at times heated, and at times old fashioned debate on some foreign policy and a surprising (or not too surprising) amount of discussion revolving around the domestic economy. While there were many mentions of terrorism and nuclear war, there was not a single mention on any of the world’s largest killers, namely preventable deaths due to disease and poverty.

Annually around 655,000 people die from malaria each year, between 1.6 and 1.9 million people die from HIV/AIDS, and 1.4 million die from TB each year. It’s also estimated that every day 29,000 children die from preventable causes around the world. To put these numbers in perspective, from 1969 to 2009 there have been a total of 5,586 American fatalities as a result of terrorist attacks and 4,488 servicemen have died in Iraq and 2,012 have been killed in service in Afghanistan. Now, you might say that the president is in charge of US national security and should not be concerned with the deaths of some nameless people in some other country. What would a proponent of that viewpoint say to the fact that on average 36,000 Americans die from the common flu each year? Given the political discourse in the United States, they would probably not say much.

My point in writing is not to belittle the tragic deaths of Americans at home and abroad that were caused by terrorism, nor to dismiss the staggering number of good people that have been lost fighting for the US around the world. What I do want to point out however is that it is utterly ridiculous to completely remove Global Health issues from the discourse. Ten times the number of people who died in World War died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. This is a trend that has continued throughout history, that disease and preventable deaths stand as the top killers compared to those directly affected by conflict. How can you talk about foreign policy without talking about global health policy? Likely because it is an issue that the average American doesn’t care about. As a result, presidential initiatives devoted to Global Health have been decidedly lackluster, ranging from Bush’s PEPFAR which generated a great deal of funding but spent it in a politicized way, to Obama’s creation and later closing of the White House’s Global Health Initiative. Even without a mention of global health as a humanitarian issue, there was also not a single mention of pandemic threat which should play into the American political calculus.

Both candidates attempted to win the favor of voters at the foreign policy debate. The topics they discussed were important in international politics and for the most part should be given attention to by the commander in chief. As a global health advocates however, we need to hold politicians and the media accountable to the fact that global health issues are real and found throughout the world, and deserve at least one mention in the US foreign policy agenda.

Call for Action: Be an advocate! Contact your state representative today and let them know that you care about global health policy.

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