Tackling the Global Burden of Disease, One Health Worker at a Time

We've come a long way over the past 40 years in preventing and treating infectious diseases. The number of child deaths now drops every year. And malnutrition is causing fewer deaths than in the past, too. However, more young people and middle-aged adults are suffering—and dying—from disease and injury. Non-communicable diseases have become the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. 

The Lancet published these results last week in The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, the largest-ever systematic effort to describe the global distribution and causes of major diseases, injuries, and health risk factors. The study is, according to the Lancet’s Editor-in-Chief Dr. Richard Horton, "a critical contribution to our understanding of present and future health priorities for countries and the global community."

At IntraHealth, we’re thrilled about how far the world has come in reducing the global burden of disease. Every day, health workers contribute to this achievement as they struggle to save and improve lives despite difficult working conditions. But while we have a lot to celebrate, there is also much work to be done.

Africa has advanced more slowly than other continents in reducing disease, especially in maternal and child health. Maternal, newborn, and child mortality remain high in most of Africa. And infectious diseases, including those that could be prevented by vaccines, still lead to disability and death for many. Communities throughout the world are starting to bear an even greater burden of disease.

A particular challenge in conducting this study was the paucity of accurate data available in some countries. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), wrote, “We know that [obtaining accurate data] will require stronger country health information systems, such as registration of births and deaths. Accountability for health should be based on sound monitoring of results, tracking of resources, and transparent reviews, with a focus on equity.”

At IntraHealth, we work closely with governments to help build better data systems that allow countries to not only count their health workforces but also to plan for their future needs. Take the iHRIS Suite, for example. IntraHealth created this open-source software to allow ministries of health, professional health councils, and other decision-makers in developing countries to maintain current, accurate data on their health workforces. iHRIS was the first of its kind for the health sector and now tracks nearly half a million health workers worldwide.

Health workers must be prepared to tackle the diseases that plague their communities and countries. In many cases, this means continuing to administer vaccines and educating communities about infectious diseases. It also means helping to prevent non-communicable and chronic diseases, which are sometimes related to lifestyle, through education.

In order to tackle the global burden of disease, the world needs not only better trained health workers but more of them, especially in underserved communities. The WHO’s Global Health Workforce Alliance has estimated that 1 billion people may never have access to a health worker during their entire lifetimes. The WHO estimates that at least 4 million more health workers are needed globally. To ensure that enough health workers are present and to meet future needs, the global community must help countries address their own needs by developing and implementing health workforce strategic plans that include adequate numbers and rational distribution of health workers, and the data and resources to monitor their results. Ultimately, this is the only way we can truly reduce the world’s burden of disease.