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Closing the Global Health Equity Gap

When Eva Paus, director of the Center for Global Initiatives, introduced Gro Harlem Brundtland, MHC’s 2005 Global Studies Fellow, to the overflow crowd in Gamble Auditorium October 27, she made clear the significance of Brundtland’s visit. “Nobody in the world is better able to help us understand the problems, politics, and policies of global health than our speaker tonight,” said Paus, noting that last year the Financial Times named Brundtland the fourth most influential European of the last 25 years, behind Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher.

Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and past prime minister of Norway, spoke on “Global Health Threats: Problems, Politics, and Policies.” And the diagnosis she offered was dire: “In an interconnected and independent world, bacteria and viruses travel almost as fast as email messages.... There are no health sanctuaries.” According to Brundtland, citizens of all nations are at risk on myriad fronts until epidemics such as AIDS, malaria, TB, and vaccine-preventable diseases are halted. “Today public health challenges are no longer just local, national, or regional. They are global,” Brundtland said. “They are intimately linked to environment and development. They are key to national, regional, and global security.... A world where a billion people are deprived [of health services] is an unsafe world.”

Her prognosis, however, was hopeful and, in fact, decidedly certain. Brundtland is convinced that industrialized nations know precisely how to win the battle for health, as evidenced two-and-a-half years ago by the international response to SARS, an effort that “in just four short months, identified a new disease and contained a global outbreak, which could have become a global catastrophe.” With the threat of a new, major influenza pandemic now looming, scientists, doctors, and public health authorities again—under recommendations from WHO—are preparing for “global mobilization to fight a global threat.” Applying that same cooperation and intensity to ongoing public health challenges is precisely what will transform lives, stimulate economies, and “be a bridge for peace.” The key, Brundtland said, is that the world’s democracies must take responsibility to promote change.

Brundtland’s prescription for a health revolution isn’t just wishful thinking. During her five years at the helm of WHO, she witnessed the life-saving outcomes of new private and public initiatives, such as the Gates Foundation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

Brundtland also urged her audience to recognize the moral imperative of narrowing health equity gaps. Access to a functioning health system, she noted, is “a basic human right and a matter of social justice. We need to invest in people. Public responsibility for all is a vital part of a functioning democracy.” In response to an audience question about how a student can help, Brundtland noted everyone has the opportunity to improve the world. “Pick something that promotes change. And vote. How can you criticize anything in your country or in the world if you don’t even do that?” she asked.

The following morning, Brundtland met with students in the medical anthropology class taught by Lynn Morgan, chair of sociology and anthropology. The forum, which was open to the campus, offered Morgan and her students an up-close view of what Morgan described as Brundtland’s “feistiness, optimism, and her tireless, 40-year commitment to public service.” She added, “Gro Brundtland is a model for those of us—and I include myself—who sometimes get paralyzed by the seemingly intractable, overwhelming nature of global health problems. She shows that individuals can make a positive difference.”

Jens Christiansen, professor of economics and chair of European studies, echoed Morgan’s comments. “Gro Harlem Brundtland is the non plus ultra as a role model for Mount Holyoke students,” he said. “For over two decades she has been a mover and shaker on the international scene. Eva Paus and the Center for Global Initiatives could not have made a better choice for MHC’s 2005 Global Studies Fellow. Brundtland is a truly outstanding global citizen.”