August 3, 2011
by Keven Stachelek
We arrived on Monday supposedly to learn about nutrition, a subject I have always regarded as either crushingly boring or frustratingly intractable, and were met by Dr. Peter Sullivan, a current Reader (a professor in the U.S.) in the Department of Paediatric Gastroenterology. I prepared myself for a healthy amount of learned theorizing with few practical solutions. And I was not surprised. Truly, practical solutions to global malnutrition are quite primitive: Goiter and Cretinism can be cured by iodizing salt; and Vitamin A deficiency, the most common cause of blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa, can be eliminated for the cost of a yearly ketchup packet-sized supplement. These tragedies are no less affecting for their simplicity, but the real story is the patterns of consumption and waste that undergird our society. Dr. Sullivan’s work is not bound up in micropipettes and petri dishes. He is instead concerned with the everyday decisions all of us on Earth make, that on a global scale add up to appalling nutritional inequality, and he is not shy about naming his enemy. As the lecture progressed, I was surprised to find myself truly inspired.
I returned to my dorm at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall brimming with quiet determination. It then occurred to me, that though I had a fair understanding of the structure of modern medicine, and a passable knowledge of international relations, and had been accepted into a competitive course at a prestigious university, I had no definite idea what “Global Health” was. I had proceeded under the indistinct assumption that it was medicine in “other” countries. And over the length of BISC 499 I have encountered similar terms like “Tropical Medicine” and “International Health,” lumping each into the same general category.
Initially I was embarrassed to realize my own ignorance. Had I written numerous application essays, traveled across an ocean, spent not only mine but USC’s fortunes on something I knew not what? I fumbled about, imagining Global Health as international aid, or medicine in adverse circumstances. None really satisfying that inspired feeling I had experienced after Dr. Sullivan’s talk.
After having spent time researching this most obvious of questions, I have made a somewhat startling discovery: no one really knows what Global Health is. Or at least, not many can agree. Now “Tropical Medicine” or “International Health” have each been around for centuries. But Global Health as a discipline has only been in existence for about 20 years. Most of its history waits to be written. Luckily, there are an important few whyo can agree on what it will become. I quote here from a recent publication by Professors at the University of California, San Francisco, University of Cape Town, and Muhimbili University in Tanzania (a truly global endeavor):
“Rather than repeating the colonial approach of the early days of tropical medicine, or the development aid approach of international health, the increased connectedness of the 21st century provides academic institutions around the world the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop research programs to redress health disparities and education programs to nurture global health leaders capable of tackling looming global threats wherever they occur. Arranging practical ways to monitor the extent to which these academic initiatives fulfill their intentions is a crucial next step.”
The impending globalized future that so many seers predict is not just an eventuality. We are only beginning to experience a global civilization. The time to educate doctors in Global Health was last decade. Maybe, if we all start early enough we can catch up in time. If I can make a contribution, I will have my introduction at Oxford to thank.
Keven Stachelek is a junior majoring in biology and philosophy from Fullerton, Calif.