April 14, 2006

Vermund sees progress in global health

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Sten Vermund, M.D.

Vermund sees progress in global health

From AIDS to avian flu, the challenges facing global health are daunting, yet Sten Vermund, M.D., is not discouraged.

“I've been working in global health for 27 years, and I've never seen such positive energy towards making a difference,” said Vermund, director of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's Institute for Global Health.

Vermund spoke during a public forum recently at the Scarritt-Bennett Center sponsored by Nashville Public Television, the Mayor's Office of Children and Youth and the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

The forum followed a six-part series, “Rx for Survival — A Global Health Challenge,” that was broadcast on public television stations last November.

The spread of avian flu demonstrates why people who usually act locally need to think globally, Mayor Bill Purcell said during the forum.

“More so than any other time I think in the history of the planet, we all ultimately have a relationship with and a responsibility for everyone on the rest of the planet,” Purcell said.

“That, after all, is at the foundation of whatever faith or belief you might have. But also now from a scientific perspective, you have no choice but to deal with it, because it will be here one day or another, one way or another.”

“We need to view ourselves as citizens of a planet,” added Mario Rojas, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics.

“Four million babies die each year on average during the first four weeks of life,” said Rojas, who helped organize the first randomized, controlled multi-center studies aimed at improving the care of sick newborns in his native Colombia. “Of these, 99 percent occur in middle-income and low-income countries.”

At the same time, the United States, which represents about 4 percent of the world's population, consumes about a third of the world's resources.

“Many of these resources are coming from developing nations,” he said.

If industrialized nations helped improve access to clean water, adequate nutrition, affordable health care and education in the poor countries from which they are extracting natural resources like oil, “we wouldn't have all the problems that we have at the present time. Promoting socioeconomic development in poor nations while decreasing excessive consumption in developed nations is one of the best ways to decrease infant mortality,” Rojas said.

“It also can help maintain socioeconomic and political stability around the globe.”

“We certainly need to be bridging health, education, environment and economic development,” Vermund agreed.

Vermund said there are many ways for individuals — and groups of individuals — to contribute to improving global health. He cited as an example the $250 million pledged to date by Rotary International to eradicate polio.

“It's a marvelous positive example of where, if we leave our politics at the door and do the right thing, we can achieve the almost impossible. And we are within a couple of years of the last child on Earth ever being infected by the polio virus.

“We can make a difference,” Vermund concluded. “For all of the trouble in the world, much progress is being made.”