Apr. 02 2018

Tackling Health Disparities on a Global Scale

Mailman School faculty take a leading role in one of the world's largest annual conferences on global health, all with an eye to promoting health equity.

As growing health disparities fuel global instability, there is an ever more urgent need to close the inequity gap. It was this call to action that brought together more than 1,800 people from 55 nations at the ninth annual Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) Conference in New York City.

Co-sponsored by Columbia University, the four-day conference in March focused on the links between economic inequality and health disparities in a variety of contexts, addressing issues spanning aging, women's health and rights, environmental threats and health systems.

“Social and economic inequities perpetuate health disparities across regions and countries, as well as within countries,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP, University Professor, and one of the chairs of the CUGH conference. “Our goal was for the theme of health disparities to form a cohesive narrative across the various conference offerings,” she added. 

In a talk that looked at inequity through a local lens, Mary Bassett, New York City’s Health Commissioner and associate professor of Epidemiology, highlighted disparities that exist in the five boroughs, noting, “although some of the richest people in the world live here, half of the population lives at or near poverty.”

As a way to improve the situation, Bassett encouraged action on the local level, emphasizing that by improving your own community, you can help move the needle on a large scale. “It’s so important for people to understand that those who pursue global health should think also about their own country,” she said. “Our goal is to not only make injustice visible but to act upon it.”

CUGH, Mailman School of Public Health, Global Health In a plenary session on health disparities and aging, Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried spoke about increased life expectancy around the world and its implications. According to a 2015 study by the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, the number of people 60 years and older around the world is expected to more than double by 2050a figure Dean Fried called “a great triumph” and the result of “100 years of investment in global health, public health, medical care, and education.” Yet longevity can also exacerbate health disparities.

Accumulated disadvantages resulting from racism, sexism, and socioeconomic status, create stark differences in the health status of older adults, Dean Fried explained. On a global level, the health needs of the aged are too often ignored—particularly in the case of people forced from their homes due to conflict or natural disasters. “In this current age of refugees, increasingly we recognize that older people are rarely on the agenda of humanitarian agencies.”

On solving the health disparities of aging populations, the panel moderated by Dean Fried was optimistic about building societies that benefit from longer life through prevention, more robust health systems, supportive environments, and by engaging older adults in ways that contribute to their communities. “The creation of healthy aging is within our collective reach,” she said.

“If we can elevate the floor and the ceiling of health at the same time into the oldest stages, I think we have the opportunity for something we never imagined before.”

A number of other Mailman School faculty participated in the conference, including Population and Family Health Chair Terry McGovern, Chelsea Clinton, Julie Kornfeld, Linda Cushman, Lynn Freedman, Miriam Rabkin, Harriet Nuwagaba-Biribonwoha, Elizabeth Radin, and Lindsay Stark, among others.

The conference also provided several Mailman students with the opportunity to showcase their work. Klaudia Cios, an MPH candidate in Epidemiology, was on a panel led by Vice Dean for Education Julie Kornfeld examining student fieldwork. Cios said going through Self, Social, Global Awareness (SSGA) orientation prepared her to work with others whose contexts and experiences are different from her own—a sensitivity that might serve anyone working to overcome global health disparities.

“From different cultures and different backgrounds,” said Cios, “we each experience something that the other will not.”