Bill Gates outlined what global health could look like by 2040 during a tribute lecture to Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge on Monday.
“Hawking’s last book was all about asking big questions … One of those questions was, can we predict the future?” Gates said. “When it comes to the future of health, I believe the answer is yes, we can.”
The Microsoft founder, who is well known for his philanthropic work on global health initiatives through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made two important projections for the future of the world’s health.
“My first prediction is, we will solve malnutrition and significantly reduce the number of nutrition-related deaths,” he said, noting that childhood mortality rates have drastically declined in the last 30 years.
In 1990, 12.6 million children under 5 died — that number was reduced to 5.3 million in 2018, according to the World Health Organization.
Huge progress has been made, but massive discrepancies exist. A child in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is 15 times more likely to die before the age of 5 than a child in a high-income country.
Malnourished children are also more likely to die due to conditions like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria. Nutrition-related issues play a part in about 45% of deaths in children under the age of 5, according to the WHO.
Addressing malnutrition would not only address the obvious issue of starvation and its associated deaths, but it would also address stunting, which limits a child’s ability to grow in body and mind.
One out of every 5 children is stunted, according to Gates.
Childhood malnutrition is #Solvable! @BillGates describes how a greater understanding of the microbiome can enhance existing tools and resources to combat childhood malnutrition and improve child development. https://t.co/4Bu4OozS8Ipic.twitter.com/LjAqGiP3QY— The Rockefeller Foundation (@RockefellerFdn) August 27, 2019
“It’s no exaggeration to say that stunting is holding back entire nations,” he said.
Gates said that new and future knowledge about the body’s microbiome, which consists of a group of bacteria in the body, will play an important role in securing a healthy future.
“Until recently, fixing the microbiome has been a complete mystery to us. We’ve learned a lot about it in recent years, and will continue to learn more over the next two decades,” he said. “That deeper understanding is why I predict we’re going to solve malnutrition.”
Armed with that knowledge, future generations will be able to create innovations like probiotic pills that house the ideal combinations of bacteria in order to tackle malnutrition, and also use the information to provide “microbiota-directed complementary foods,” Gates said. These foods would lead to the growth of healthy bacteria that would help with food digestion and infection prevention.
Gates’ next prediction was that every country will shift its focus from “just saving lives to also improving lives.”
He anticipates that every country with a percentage of preventable deaths over 50% will continue to see decreases.
He also predicted that malaria will be basically eliminated by 2040, too, as the global health community discovered the best approach was not just treatment, but vector control — meaning controlling mosquitoes through bed nets and gene editing.
Innovation and investment in health care are at the core of the future success of global health, and Gates called on all countries to invest in health care innovation.
“Improvements in health are fundamental to lifting people out of poverty. When you improve health, people are more productive. And when more children survive to adulthood, families decide to have fewer children — which can lead to a burst of economic growth,” he said. “In other words, when people thrive physically, economies grow. Poverty goes down. The world gets better.”
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.