Engaging the public on global health

This post originally appeared here.

A simple Google AdWords search of Ebola keyword searches in the past twelve months in the U.S. shows a general disinterest in Ebola all through the summer when cases were raging in West Africa and a sudden spike to 24 million searches in October 2014 just when cases were coming to the U.S. Similarly, average search volumes of “Ebola in Africa” are around 8,100 per month, while “Ebola in the U.S.” gets about 74,000 searches per month. Clearly, something is not right.

Yet the problem may not be exactly what we think it is. It is certainly not the case that people simply don’t care about global health and only become concerned when a disease encroaches on their own borders. In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from 2012, 52% of people said that the media pays too little attention to health issues in developing countries. 50% of people said they paid at least some attention to global health issues in the news, 18% said they paid a lot of attention, and only 6% said they paid no attention at all. Lest we think people are merely self-interested, when asked why the U.S. should spend money on global health, 51% of people said it was because “it is the right thing to do”. Charitable giving statistics lend a bit more meat to this argument. In 2013, individual donation to health organizations in the U.S. amounted to a total of $31.86 billion, up 6% from 2012. Naturally, many of these health organizations have domestic missions. However, it does show concern about health in particular.

From these surveys and statistics, it would be difficult to argue that the American public has absolutely no interest in global health and international development. But there does seem to be a barrier to getting more involved in these issues: the way the information is presented. But the American public seems interested in knowing more about global health outside of these crises.

At the same time, it will be important to provide some more perspective on what the most pressing global health issues truly are. The same Kaiser survey found that when given a list of health issues in developing countries and asked to rank priorities, the public had a difficult time choosing, and about 1/3 of people claimed that all 12 named issues should be “one of the top” priorities. This finding suggests that although people want to engage more with global health, they feel overwhelmed by the number of issues that plague developing countries and have no reliable regular source of information to help them understand it all.

Engaging people on a regular basis in global health news and issues, as well as offering some perspective on what drives health crises in developing countries, might go a long way in mobilizing a group of people who want to help in some way but don’t know how. But whose responsibility is it to provide this kind of engagement, and how should it be done? Some possibilities include encouraging the media to make use of health crises in developing countries, such as Ebola, to more thoroughly explore and report on the contexts in which these crises arise. In a similar manner, these journalists should be engaging more extensively with local communities, and, perhaps more importantly, with local journalists, whose voices are very often absent from our news sources.

One interesting example of a current concerted effort to engage the public in dialogue about global health is the Wellcome Collection. The Wellcome Collection opened in 2007 and is described as a “free visitor destination for the incurably curious”. The Collection offers a wide range of information and exhibits related to science and medicine in general, but since the Wellcome Trust is such a major funder of global health, the collection also provides the public with a great deal of information on global health issues such as malaria, epidemics, and infant mortality.

In addition, health care companies and major foundations such as the Gates Foundation could make a more concerted effort to engage the general public in global health issues, especially during times of crisis when they already have an audience. This kind of engagement should go beyond statistics about various diseases and requests for funding to really making people aware of the entire political, social, economic, and healthcare context in which these epidemics arise. Perhaps this kind of regular engagement in global health issues might prevent the kind of needless and sometimes dangerous hysteria we witnessed with the Ebola epidemic and also target people’s attention and concern to where it would be most helpful.

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