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Orphaned Global Health Issues

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Today is the second annual World Pneumonia Day, a small sign of growing attention to the deadliest and yet until recently one of the least high-profile childhood diseases. As recently as last year, Nicholas Kristof was bemoaning the inadequacy of investment in prevention and treatment, although pneumonia deaths outnumber those of malaria, HIV-AIDS and measles combined. Since then, a global network of NGOs, international organizations, researchers and governments formed the Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia has begun to change this perception – a first step in changing global health practice and donor priorities.

This is good news. But it also highlights the uneven attention to specific global health issues generally – a problem not lost on researchers. According to Jeremy Shifman of Syracuse University, for example, the likelihood that an issue like maternal mortality will come to prominence on the global agenda has a little to do with its prevalence or severity and much to do with the political context.

In this sense, the story of the emerging pneumonia campaign also reminds us to keep an eye out for norm entrepreneurs promoting causes we may have missed. Here are five more emerging campaigns on low-salience global health issues worth paying attention to:

Rehabilitative Care for Burn Victims. Burn survivors worldwide suffer stigma, disability and isolation. Over 6.6 million people are affected; according to Interplast.org, in some parts of the world, burn injuries among children outnumber cases of HIV-AIDS, malaira and tuberculosis. They are also common among women – from accidents, domestic abuse and increasingly self-immolation. But the effects of burns are social and developmental as well as physical: according to Handreach.org millions of children in the developing world are kept back from school and a future because they have suffered a sudden, life-changing trauma injuries that often bankrupt poor families and leave children crippled, dependent, and homebound for life.

Pain Relief As a Human Right. Millions worldwide suffer the effects of disease or physical trauma without access to pain medication or analgesia. In fact, in 2007 over 92% of the world’s supply of morphine was consumed by North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. The International Association for the Study of Pain argues this should be changed, and is working with the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch and other health and human rights organizations to change the way in which analgesics are distributed worldwide.

Optical Care in the Developing World.According to Operation Eyesight Universal, 161 million people worldwide suffer from poor eyesight; yet 90% of these individuals live in the developing world where optical care is inaccessible to many. The global health and development community has been slow to prioritize this issue, though Vision Aid Overseas has programs, and scientists are beginning to explore a variety of fixes, including boosting the nutritional value of corn and water-powered spectacles.

Type 1 Diabetes. Although it has historically been a “silent killer,” with symptoms sporadic and progressive while it affects the cardiovascular system over time, diabetes is now being named the “epidemic of the 21st century.” Over 220 million people are currently affected, and the World Health Organization projects the numbers will double by 2030. The 19th World Diabetes Day just passed, but there is much more work to be done to address this disease and its root problems.

Traffic Accidents. Not to sound like a broken record.

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