The Top 10 Global Health Stories of 2014

December 22, 2014

By David J. Olson

Ebola, the biggest global health story of the year, is one that no one could have predicted when the year dawned almost 12 months ago. It did something that few global health stories do: It entered the consciousness of the global public in an important way. Beyond Ebola, though, there was much to celebrate in 2014.


1.     Ebola: That one word represented not only the biggest global health story of the year, but one of the biggest stories of the year, of any type. As of Dec. 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 18,603 cases and 6,915 deaths. Late in the year, incidence was declining in Liberia, slowing in Sierra Leone and “fluctuating” in Guinea. Sierra Leone surpassed Liberia as the country with the most reported cases. As I wrote here on Global Health TV last month, Ebola has made the definitive case for stronger health systems and health workers in developing countries.


2.     Remarkable Progress against Malaria: On Dec. 9, WHO announced that the number of people dying from malaria had fallen dramatically since 2000 and malaria cases are steadily declining. Between 2000 and 2013, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide and 54% in Africa, where about 90% of malaria deaths occur. Globally, an increasing number of countries are moving towards malaria elimination, and many regional groups are setting ambitious elimination targets, the most recent being a declaration to eliminate malaria from the Asia-Pacific region by 2030.


3.     And Equally Remarkable Progress for Children: The under-five mortality rate has declined by almost half since 1990, according to a report published by UNICEF in September, and the absolute number of under-five deaths was cut in half during the same period. In June, the governments of Ethiopia, India and the U.S., plus UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hosted a summit to plan the end of preventable child and maternal deaths by 2035. USAID Administrator Raj Shah announced that USAID is realigning $2.9 billion of agency resources to save up to a half a million children from preventable deaths by 2015. Read more in my July blog here at Global Health TV.


4.     AIDS “Tipping Point” Finally Reached: Although it was underreported, we reached the long-anticipated tipping point of AIDS – the moment at which we put more people on AIDS treatment than the number of people who were newly infected. This doesn’t mean the end of AIDS but many people think it marks “the beginning of the end of AIDS.”


5.     Universal Health Coverage: 2014 seemed to be the moment for universal health coverage (UHC). Two years ago, the United National General Assembly unanimously endorsed UHC as an important step in the fight against health inequity. On Dec. 12, we marked the first-ever Universal Health Coverage Day. Since 2010, 80 countries have asked WHO for assistance in making UHC a reality, including India, whose new Narendra Modi government announced it is rolling out national health insurance by the end of the year. Here are some examples.


6.     A Terrible Year for Children: Despite the progress in Number 3, UNICEF declared 2014 a devastating year for children. “Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”


7.     Strange Bedfellows in Global Health: It used to be that a donor would sit down with the ministry of health to work out the design and implementation of a new global health initiative with no significant involvement of other stakeholders. Nowadays, it’s widely recognized that more stakeholders need to be consulted — stakeholders as varied as the private sector, faith-based organizations, universities, research institutions, youth, women and community-based organizations. As I wrote here, “we need strange bedfellows engaging in unorthodox collaborations.” This started to happen more in 2014, and needs to be accelerated.


8.     Focus on Family Planning: 2014 marked two years since the breakthrough London Summit on Family Planning, which pledged to reach 120 million new women and girls with modern contraception by 2020. In December, Family Planning 2020 released its annual report, announcing that 8.4 million additional women and girls used modern contraception in 2013 as compared to 2012. The report notes that this accomplishment did not meet the goal of 9.4 million additional users but “is still a significant milestone.” In 2013, social marketing organizations delivered 70 million couple years of protection and expect to eventually reach as many as a quarter of those 120 million new users. The Bill & Melinda Gates continue to play a much-needed leadership role in all of this. “Melinda Gates and the BMGF jumped into family planning with two feet,” said IntraHealth President Pape Gaye.


9.     Still Neglected NCDs: Despite the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs, non-communicable diseases are getting more attention but still almost no resources. NCDs should be a lot higher on this list than Number 9. The first paragraph of a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations, tells the story of our misplaced priorities well: “The gravest health threats facing low- and middle-income countries are not the plagues, parasites, and blights that dominate the news cycle and international relief efforts. They are the everyday diseases the international community understands and could address, but fails to take action against.”


10.  Global Development Lab: The Obama Administration announced that it is creating a Global Development Lab as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop breakthrough ideas to combat hunger, disease and poverty. Ann Mei Chang, the Google executive brought in to head the new initiative says that to achieve the lab’s goal of saving the lives of 200 million people in five years, the lab will have to bet on some radical ideas.



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