Notes from the World Health Summit: Day One

By Jenna T. Nakagawa
October 25, 2011

We were spread out over different areas in Berlin, but this morning, we moved in unison. Yes—it was synchronized alarm-ringing. Synchronized eye-rubbing and thinking we would have liked more than our synchronized three or four hours of sleep (oh, Berlin). And so at the same time, we all put on our grown-up clothes, looked at ourselves in the mirrors proudly and knew the day would be güd. Then we all emerged from our respective sleeping holes and, after an hour of public transportation and walking, somehow found ourselves at the same intersection, because we were all lost. After a bit more time we rejoiced in finding our café of interest. Little victories.

I am attending this year’s World Health Summitwith fellow medical students from different countries. Two groups include the International Federation of Medical Students Associations and Medsin UK—representing the UK, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Kyrgystan, Austria, Malta, the United States, and Grenada (yours truly). We are brand new suits. We are easily impressed. We are Twitter strategies for making Global Health viral—and we mean that in the best way possible. Leaders of the world, teach us something.

 

   

The theme for this year’s Summit is “Today’s Science, Tomorrow’s Agenda.” The conference is at once a celebration of our public health and medical achievements thus far, and a question of what we will do with the knowledge we’ve uncovered. Keynote speeches, seminars, and panelist discussions today covered topics in adolescent health, maternal and child health, geriatric health, new technologies in researching mental illness, the importance of intervention research, and global health education in medical training. Attendees include high-ranking officials from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; professors and doctors from some of the world’s most powerful academic institutions; students in medicine and in public health; government officials; various health advocacy groups; and heads of pharmaceutical and biotechnical companies. Even the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh came to deliver our opening ceremony speech. Portfolios, name tags, and little appetizers in one hand, we all high fived with the other to congratulate each other on caring about people.

But onto serious matters.

With increased research and innovation in health technologies, how do we ensure that such technologies benefit civil society in ways that are equitable and cost-effective? How do we incorporate global health education into already-demanding medical school curricula so that emerging doctors are prepared to practice in our ever-globalized world? How can we ensure that research will reduce the burden of disease on a community level, and how can we do it quickly enough to address worsening maternal and child health in developing countries?

We are living in a world of conundrums. Our medical technologies are more impressive than ever, more capable, yet we have no way of getting them to people. As students, we can describe contemporary medicine, memorize the intricacies of the human body, recite diseases, bacteria, viruses and antibiotics, but we struggle to learn the most basic lessons—that bad water makes us sick, and that poverty will make us vulnerable to all sorts of things. We cherish the freedom to innovate until we face walls of bureaucracy and politics. We defend health as a human right, yet it manifests only among the privileged. We race each other to secure answers before ensuring we ask the right questions. And we can’t even blame bacteria for everything anymore. In addition to continuing epidemics of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, we face the globalization of chronic diseases—punishment for our corn-subsidizing, McDonald’s-eating, tobacco-smoking and non-condom-wearing selves.

Today I learned that our global medicine cabinet contains a lot of prescription bottles, but most of them are filled with I-O-U’s and catch phrases:
“We are living in a globalized world.”
“Yes, global health is an important discipline.”
“Community engagement is necessary for capacity building.”
“Vertical programs. Were a mistake.”
“Cost-effective!”
“Grassroots!”
“Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor; poverty always falls in their jurisdiction.” (How many times did I hear that quote today?)

Yes, we’ve successfully diagnosed our problems—some major ones, at least—and have started a conversation, rich in vocabulary, about how to make people healthier. In the coming days I will go into every seminar, fingers crossed, hoping to hear solutions. If you have any thoughts that you’d like to share with us here at the conference—questions, comments, expressions of blind hope or uncontrolled rage—please feel free to email me!

Jenna T. Nakagawa

MD/MPH Term 1

St. George’s University, Grenada

jnakagaw@sgu.edu

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