Focusing on health issues solely at the national level can undermine global health security, which is only as strong as its weakest link, said Professor Dame Sally Davies, the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO).
After serving as the CMO for nine years, Davies is set to become the first female head of Cambridge University’s Trinity College Cambridge, and it stepping down from her CMO role. She published her final report today, calling for greater global health efforts to combat the spread of infectious diseases.
"Investing in global health is the smart thing to do because it is in our mutual interest. It creates a better world for us and for future generations. It helps to keep our population safe,” she said.
According to Davies, Britain should tackle the spread of deadly infections the same way it combats terrorism — by engaging a strategy that unites countries around the world to “prevent, pursue, protect, and prepare” for an attack.
“A threat in one corner of the world is a threat to anywhere else,” Davies told the Telegraph.
She urged the UK to adopt an effective strategy to stop pandemics, such as Ebola, from reaching the UK and called on the government to publish a set of shared global health objectives by the end of the year.
She added that countries across the world should work together to ensure that every child receives the vaccines they need to avoid the resurgence of diseases that have been successfully eradicated — like smallpox — as well as tackle other threats to global health, such as pollution and poor diet.
“To improve health, we need to look outside of the traditional health sphere and recognize the role of factors such as pollution, the spread of health endangering misinformation, anti-microbial resistance (AMR), and commercial activities (such as the creation and promotion of unhealthy foods),” she said in the report.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) named several of these factors in its list of “Ten Threats to Global Health” this year, including air pollution, climate change, vaccine hesitancy, Ebola, and other high-threat pathogens.
Vaccine hesitancy — the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines — in particular, can reverse the gains made to eradicate certain preventable diseases. According to WHO, measles cases have seen a 30% increase globally, and point to the rise of the anti-vaxxers movement as a contributing factor. While skipping vaccinations cannot account for all of the increase, experts say outbreaks worsened as a result of parents withholding their children from getting vaccinated. Even though measles was declared eliminated in the US in the year 2000, 1,123 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 28 states between January and July this year.
Davies also cited air pollution as a cause of ill health, which the WHO now considers the greatest environmental threat to health.
Nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air every day. Microscopic particles present in the air can penetrate the thin membranes of the respiratory and circulatory system, harming the lungs, heart, and brain. Approximately 7 million people die prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart, and lung disease.
The CMO said that the UK’s collaboration with the Nigerian Center for Disease Control was essential for helping to contain and minimize the public health impact of the monkeypox outbreak — a rare disease similar to human smallpox though milder. Cases of the disease have mainly been reported in central and west African countries; however, cases were discovered in the UK last year because diseases “know no borders,” Davies said.
Davies also added that the UK’s National Health Security (NHS) agency will benefit by learning from the examples set by other countries.
"What we learn abroad will improve our NHS and support our domestic efforts to make sure no-one in the UK is left behind," she said.
"We should invest in systems and solutions that contribute to making health more equitable, secure and sustainable.