Skip to main content

Global health within our grasp, if we don't give up

By Jeffrey Sachs, Special to CNN
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Wed September 12, 2012
A child receives an oral polio vaccine in Ivory Coast. Improved vaccines are helping save children's lives globally.
A child receives an oral polio vaccine in Ivory Coast. Improved vaccines are helping save children's lives globally.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeffrey Sachs: Health innovations can save millions of poor children each year
  • Sachs: Cell phones, fast diagnostic tests, better medicines changing global health
  • But this revolution in poor countries is threatened by funding cuts, he says
  • Sachs: Wealthy nations must not abandon the programs just as they are paying off

Editor's note: Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of "The Price of Civilization."

(CNN) -- There is a hidden revolution at work that can transform the lives of a billion of the poorest people on the planet.

The dream of health for all, even the poorest of the poor, can become a reality because of recent breakthroughs in technology and health systems. Scientific results that our Millennium Villages Project team published this week in The Lancet, coupled with broader trends around the world, should be a wake-up call: We can end the deaths of millions of young children and mothers each year by building on recent innovations.

In 2006, the Millennium Villages Project and impoverished communities around Africa jointly embarked upon the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and disease. The idea was to use low-cost, cutting-edge technologies to overcome ancient scourges like malaria and mothers dying in childbirth. Today, there is no deep mystery about what to do to stop these deaths, since the diagnostic tests, medicines and procedures are known. The challenge is to scale up these life-saving approaches.

Jeffrey D. Sachs
Jeffrey D. Sachs

In four years, starting from conditions of massive death tolls and a lack of health services, the Millennium Villages were able to reduce the deaths of children under 5-years-old by around 22%. The progress is continuing as low-cost health services expand. The lessons extend far beyond this specific project.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Poor children die of three main categories of disease: infections, nutritional deficiencies and conditions around childbirth. The technologies and procedures to fight all these causes of death are improving dramatically. Therein lies a great hope.

Consider malaria, one of the biggest killers of children in Africa. A dozen years ago, all seemed lost: The standard medicine had lost its efficacy as the parasite became resistant; insecticide-treated bed nets were little used because they had to be regularly retreated with the insecticide, a practical burden that poor villages could not manage; and diagnosis required that the mother and sick child trek to a distant clinic in the desperate hope the clinic had a functioning laboratory.

Now all this has changed. A new generation of low-cost and highly effective medicines has been deployed. The nets now last five years without the need for retreatment. A trained village-based worker, as part of an expanded health system, can make the diagnosis at the household using a simple rapid test, without the need for a life-and-death journey to a distant clinic. The Millennium Villages have slashed malaria deaths, but much more to the point, malaria deaths are falling sharply across Africa, down by around one-third from their peak roughly a decade ago.

The advances are widespread. New vaccines can fight diarrheal and respiratory diseases that have traditionally killed vast numbers of children. Thanks to vaccines, deaths from measles have plummeted, and polio is on the verge of eradication. New medical procedures can end the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to newborn. Technologies to support higher farm production and low-cost nutritional supplements can bolster inadequate diets.

Perhaps most important, information can flow through even the remotest of villages, thanks to the massive increase in mobile telephones across regions that just a few years ago had no phones at all. The spread of mobile phones may mark the fastest global uptake of a technology in history. From a few million mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 1990, the number has climbed to more than 6 billion today, with more than 250 million subscribers in Africa.

Mobile connectivity and the spread of wireless broadband are greatly strengthening rural health systems. In all of the Millennium Villages, and in more and more villages around the continent, lay community workers are bringing health services from the clinics right to the community. Mobile phones are critical in supporting these outreach workers, enabling them to call the doctors and nurses for advice, summon an ambulance or connect to a computerized expert system via text messaging.

The big picture is thrilling. Globally, deaths of young children are falling. In 1990, the worldwide deaths of children under 5 totaled around 12.5 million. By 2010, the deaths were down to around 7.6 million. Yet this technology-based revolution in human well-being is at the risk of stalling.

The improvements required international help to support the expansion of services in the poorest regions. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and Malaria and the U.S. PEPFAR initiative to fight AIDS exemplify the new kinds of support introduced during the past decade.

Total funding for primary health care in the poorest countries has risen by roughly $15 billion per year from the low levels of aid a dozen years back. That's a good sum, but modest in the scheme of things, amounting to around $15 per person per year from the high-income countries, with a combined population of 1 billion. It's about half the support needed to complete the job.

Alarmingly, the funding has come to a standstill and has even started to decline. The United States and Europe claim they can't afford to do more because of budget crises, but the needed sums could be filled many times over just by ending the loopholes that allow the richest companies to park their profits in Caribbean tax havens.

If children continue to die by the millions, it will be the result of misguided priorities, not true budget limits. Instead of making excuses for lives lost, let us celebrate the remarkable progress we are making and commit ourselves to finishing this historic and worthy task.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Sachs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT