Our Global Health Security is Only as Strong as our Weakest Link

12 June 2019 by Roslyn Morauta

Investing in health is one of the best ways to build a better future. Healthy societies are more stable and equal; and have stronger and more productive economies. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, improving public health is a global common good. Because microbes do not stop at borders, an infectious disease threat in any corner of the world can be a threat everywhere. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

Take the example of Papua New Guinea, where I have lived and worked for many years. Since the turn of the century, there has been significant progress in the fight against HIV and malaria. Investments by international donors and partnerships with faith-based organizations and other civil society groups have reduced the number of malaria cases and deaths through national mosquito net distribution campaigns. The country has also made big strides against HIV, by making lifesaving treatment available to thousands of HIV-positive people. The achievements are impressive if you think of them in the context of Papua New Guinea, a country with over eight hundred languages and cultures, high illiteracy rates, very few roads, and far-flung rural communities.

However, Papua New Guinea’s 8.5 million people continue to face very serious development and public health challenges. We have the highest malaria burden in the world outside Africa, with the entire population at risk, affecting primarily pregnant women and children under 5. We also have the highest number of new tuberculosis cases in the Pacific Island region – around 30,000 new cases each year, with TB now the leading cause of death in Papua New Guinea. We have alarming rates of drug-resistant TB, a more aggressive form that does not respond to existing medications, resulting in fewer treatment options and increasing mortality rates for illnesses that would ordinarily be curable – including TB.

With Papua New Guinea only four kilometers from Australia at its nearest point, failure to address TB or an outbreak of any infectious disease is a threat to the health and economic security of my native Australia. TB is airborne and highly contagious, so a raging TB epidemic could easily destabilize the Asia Pacific region. One weak link can affect everyone.

Such health challenges are not unique to our region. Globally, ten million people fell ill with TB in 2017, making TB the world’s deadliest infectious disease. Drug-resistant TB is part of a growing global problem posing a potentially catastrophic risk to global health security. In 2017, there were approximately 558,000 cases of drug-resistant TB.

While causing tragic deaths and suffering, infectious diseases can also damage economic growth. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicted recently that drug-resistant TB will cost the global economy approximately US$17 trillion by 2050 if the problem is not addressed.

Addressing these regional and global health challenges requires partnership. After years of remarkable progress in the fight against HIV, TB and malaria, new threats have pushed the world off track from meeting the Sustainable Development Goal target of ending the epidemics by 2030. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has played a vital role in global health, supporting programs to save millions of lives and investing US$366 million in 14 island countries in the Pacific region, supporting strong efforts by Australia’s bilateral investments to build resilient and sustainable systems for health.

The Global Fund model increases accountability and shared responsibility and helps countries on their road to self-reliance by fostering domestic investments in health. I have witnessed first-hand the transformation that investments by the Global Fund partnership have brought in Papua New Guinea. But we need to keep working hard. Papua New Guinea’s health system is very weak. We also need to continue investing and working with our partners to address the high rates of gender-based violence and promote gender equality.

Just a few months from now, the Global Fund will hold its next Replenishment Conference, with the goal of raising at least US$14 billion for the next three years. The Global Fund is calling on the world to step up the fight to maintain the progress that has been achieved through partnership, innovation and effective interventions and to end the three diseases by 2030. Australia is a longstanding partner of the Global Fund and has invested heavily in fighting diseases and in supporting countries in the Indo-Pacific region to prepare for emerging health threats. Next week, when Sydney hosts the first International Global Health Security Conference, it’s a great opportunity to stress how we all need global health security, and share responsibility. Our global health security is only as strong as our weakest link.

Lady Roslyn Morauta is Vice-Chair of the Board of the Global Fund

This article first appeared in The Mandarin