Skip to main content

Global health within our grasp, if we don't give up

By Jeffrey Sachs, Special to CNN
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Wed September 12, 2012
A child receives an oral polio vaccine in Ivory Coast. Improved vaccines are helping save children's lives globally.
A child receives an oral polio vaccine in Ivory Coast. Improved vaccines are helping save children's lives globally.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeffrey Sachs: Health innovations can save millions of poor children each year
  • Sachs: Cell phones, fast diagnostic tests, better medicines changing global health
  • But this revolution in poor countries is threatened by funding cuts, he says
  • Sachs: Wealthy nations must not abandon the programs just as they are paying off

Editor's note: Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of "The Price of Civilization."

(CNN) -- There is a hidden revolution at work that can transform the lives of a billion of the poorest people on the planet.

The dream of health for all, even the poorest of the poor, can become a reality because of recent breakthroughs in technology and health systems. Scientific results that our Millennium Villages Project team published this week in The Lancet, coupled with broader trends around the world, should be a wake-up call: We can end the deaths of millions of young children and mothers each year by building on recent innovations.

In 2006, the Millennium Villages Project and impoverished communities around Africa jointly embarked upon the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and disease. The idea was to use low-cost, cutting-edge technologies to overcome ancient scourges like malaria and mothers dying in childbirth. Today, there is no deep mystery about what to do to stop these deaths, since the diagnostic tests, medicines and procedures are known. The challenge is to scale up these life-saving approaches.

Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey D. Sachs

In four years, starting from conditions of massive death tolls and a lack of health services, the Millennium Villages were able to reduce the deaths of children under 5-years-old by around 22%. The progress is continuing as low-cost health services expand. The lessons extend far beyond this specific project.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Poor children die of three main categories of disease: infections, nutritional deficiencies and conditions around childbirth. The technologies and procedures to fight all these causes of death are improving dramatically. Therein lies a great hope.

Consider malaria, one of the biggest killers of children in Africa. A dozen years ago, all seemed lost: The standard medicine had lost its efficacy as the parasite became resistant; insecticide-treated bed nets were little used because they had to be regularly retreated with the insecticide, a practical burden that poor villages could not manage; and diagnosis required that the mother and sick child trek to a distant clinic in the desperate hope the clinic had a functioning laboratory.

Now all this has changed. A new generation of low-cost and highly effective medicines has been deployed. The nets now last five years without the need for retreatment. A trained village-based worker, as part of an expanded health system, can make the diagnosis at the household using a simple rapid test, without the need for a life-and-death journey to a distant clinic. The Millennium Villages have slashed malaria deaths, but much more to the point, malaria deaths are falling sharply across Africa, down by around one-third from their peak roughly a decade ago.

The advances are widespread. New vaccines can fight diarrheal and respiratory diseases that have traditionally killed vast numbers of children. Thanks to vaccines, deaths from measles have plummeted, and polio is on the verge of eradication. New medical procedures can end the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to newborn. Technologies to support higher farm production and low-cost nutritional supplements can bolster inadequate diets.

Perhaps most important, information can flow through even the remotest of villages, thanks to the massive increase in mobile telephones across regions that just a few years ago had no phones at all. The spread of mobile phones may mark the fastest global uptake of a technology in history. From a few million mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 1990, the number has climbed to more than 6 billion today, with more than 250 million subscribers in Africa.

Mobile connectivity and the spread of wireless broadband are greatly strengthening rural health systems. In all of the Millennium Villages, and in more and more villages around the continent, lay community workers are bringing health services from the clinics right to the community. Mobile phones are critical in supporting these outreach workers, enabling them to call the doctors and nurses for advice, summon an ambulance or connect to a computerized expert system via text messaging.

The big picture is thrilling. Globally, deaths of young children are falling. In 1990, the worldwide deaths of children under 5 totaled around 12.5 million. By 2010, the deaths were down to around 7.6 million. Yet this technology-based revolution in human well-being is at the risk of stalling.

The improvements required international help to support the expansion of services in the poorest regions. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and Malaria and the U.S. PEPFAR initiative to fight AIDS exemplify the new kinds of support introduced during the past decade.

Total funding for primary health care in the poorest countries has risen by roughly $15 billion per year from the low levels of aid a dozen years back. That's a good sum, but modest in the scheme of things, amounting to around $15 per person per year from the high-income countries, with a combined population of 1 billion. It's about half the support needed to complete the job.

Alarmingly, the funding has come to a standstill and has even started to decline. The United States and Europe claim they can't afford to do more because of budget crises, but the needed sums could be filled many times over just by ending the loopholes that allow the richest companies to park their profits in Caribbean tax havens.

If children continue to die by the millions, it will be the result of misguided priorities, not true budget limits. Instead of making excuses for lives lost, let us celebrate the remarkable progress we are making and commit ourselves to finishing this historic and worthy task.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Sachs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT