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A New Global Study to Help Us Understand Disease

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A New Global Study to Help Us Understand Disease
 
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A Set of Complex Problems

A New Global Study to Help Us Understand Disease

Global health is a pretty complicated set of intertwined problems—hundreds of different diseases and injuries, and dozens of unique health risk factors.

Understanding the global distribution, trends, and interplay of major diseases, injuries, and risk factors helps global health organizations and governments understand what’s working, what’s changing, and how to make the best use of their resources.

Last week, researchers released the results of a five-year project—funded by our foundation—to assess the prevalence of diseases, injuries and risk factors in 187 countries over a 20 year period—from 1990 to 2010. Known as the Global Burden of Disease 2010 (GBD), it is the most comprehensive study of its kind and incorporates the work of hundreds of public health experts.

The study is important to the global health community because it examines which diseases are preventing the world’s poor from living healthy and productive lives, and the risk factors that contribute to an increase in those diseases.

Only a handful of studies—like the GBD—make use of sophisticated analysis to quantify ill health and permit direct comparison of fatal and non-fatal diseases across time, countries, and populations.

A few key findings stood out for me.

The data reinforces my optimism about the impact of aid for global health. In the past 50 years, the number of children who die before they turn 5 has gone down from 20 million to 6.9 million. We’ve still got a lot of work to do—especially in Sub-Saharan Africa—to get that number close to zero. But there’s no question we have made significant progress. Fewer children are dying from causes such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diarrhea-related diseases.

At the same time, the causes of premature death in Western countries have shifted from communicable diseases, starvation, and malnutrition, to diseases like cancer, hypertension, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Yet, more people are living with these chronic disabilities. This last point is an especially important one because providing care for chronic illnesses has tremendous lifetime costs.

Life ranks graphic

The new data—which includes more than 200 detailed publications in submission or preparation—provides our foundation and other organizations with critical information to do our jobs more effectively. We’re not yet sure what the impact will be, but it is a remarkable resource that will contribute to the conversation among researchers, public health experts, and policymakers.

The GBD is impressive work that was led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, and a consortium of other universities and organizations, including the World Health Organization, Harvard University, Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University, University of Queensland, and University of Tokyo.

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