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Healthcare in interesting times

spring 2018

From triple helix - spring 2018 - Healthcare in interesting times

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Key points
  • Expected reductions in the American aid and development budget will further weaken the global response to major health challenges.

  • Funding cuts to agencies such as Marie Stopes and Planned Parenthood may provide openings for faith-based agencies to bid for funds.

  • War situations continue to force millions to become refugees. Yemen now represents the biggest global health crisis where three years of civil war has led to the biggest outbreak of cholera on record.

  • Britain and the USA face serious shortages of healthcare professionals. Recruiting internationally will further weaken provision in poor countries.

The Chinese are said to have had a curse - 'may you live in interesting times' and the last few years have certainly been interesting times! In such circumstances it is good to take stock, and ask, what are the challenges ahead of us and those Christians working in global health.

Changing aid climate

The US administration has proposed significant reductions in the aid and development budget. 1 This includes reducing funding for work on containing infectious disease outbreaks by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. 2 Given the World Health Organisation's recent poor track record on this issue, 3 the withdraw of the CDC's support could further weaken the global response to the next major infectious disease outbreak.

However, the issue at the top of most of the development community's concerns is that the Trump administration has reinstated the so-called 'Mexico City Policy' or 'Global Gag Rule'. This means that the US Department for Aid and International Development (USAID) requires any aid agency that receives US funding not to provide, counsel or inform women about abortion. 4 This has already slashed funding from Marie Stopes International (MSI) and International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the tune of US$80 million and $100 million respectively. 5 Many are concerned that this will hit smaller agencies, estimating that over twelve hundred NGOs will between them lose $2.2 billion in funding. 6 While other funders have increased funding to some of these agencies to the sum of around $450 million, the shortfall remains significant. 7

However, a lot of family planning services continue but are being provided by agencies that do not provide or counsel abortion, and others are changing their policies to fit in with the Mexico City Policy. So, despite the outrage in much of the development community, faith-based organisations in particular are continuing to provide effective services, stepping into the breach left by MSI, IPPF and their like. 8

The consensus that IPPF and MSI have created about family planning is being challenged. 9 Most countries, and indeed the UN itself, do not include abortion in family planning definitions. Furthermore, the track record of bodies like IPPF and MSI with respect to maternal and child health is increasingly in question. 10 While many in the development community are 'up in arms' about the current US funding policy, the impact on maternal and child health may well be exaggerated. 11

However, there is still a risk that maternal and child health could suffer a real gap in provision, and it is a huge challenge, particularly for Christian faith-based organisations (FBOs) to continue to step up to the plate and fill the gaps in existing services.


At the start of 2017, the war in Iraq and Syria was the big concern, forcing millions to flee and become refugees, while millions more were left as internally displaced people (IDPs) within their war-wrecked countries. But by the end of the year, while that war had begun to wind down, 12 the biggest health crisis shifted to Yemen where three years of civil war has led to the biggest outbreak of cholera on record, 13 the re-emergence of long controlled infectious diseases such as diphtheria, 14 and near total infrastructural devastation that means the country could take a generation or more to recover.

Meanwhile, civil wars and conflicts in Central African Republic 15 and South Sudan 16 and the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar 17 leave many unable to grow food, get clean water or access health services, while also generating refugee situations of their own. The politics around these conflicts mean these situations could rumble on for years to come.

Health workforce

In the UK, we are seeing one in ten nursing vacancies unfilled 18 and a shortage of General Practitioners and junior doctors. 19 The US and other Western nations are facing comparable shortages. This creates an opportunity for millions of doctors, nurses and other skilled health workers from developing nations to migrate, but this leaves their own nations even shorter of professionals than the West.

Another, largely ignored issue within this is that most of these health workers are women (at least 75% 20). While the #MeToo movement 21 started in the West with celebrities, the realities not just of sexual harassment, but also of discrimination and lack of access to education, good pay and chances for promotion that women face in many parts of the world, mean the health workforce is still often ignored and under-resourced. 22

Just increasing our investment in training nurses has an impact not only on health, but also on development and the status of women in society. 23 But the same challenges face midwifery, medicine and other health professions, and one of the issues at the heart of this is the status of women and whether female healthcare leaders 24 will be listened to at national and global levels.

At present, the global health workforce is short of 18 million trained health workers. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 the World Health Organisation reckons the world needs another 40 million health professionals. 25 Without adequate pay, training, working conditions and recognition, this simply won't happen. And this is not just a developing world issue. As the recent NHS winter crisis reminded us, the wealthy nations of the world are also falling alarmingly short of health professionals. The only difference is that we can afford to poach them from poorer countries!

And the good news?

Has it all been bad in the past year? And is the future all grim? There turn out to be many encouragements and guarded reasons for optimism.

Firstly, some disasters never happened. A famine in South Sudan was averted, and overall the chances of people dying of famine has dropped globally to 0.06% of the figure in the 1960s. Early warning systems, better coordination of aid and emergency relief have all reduced the incidence of famine. 26

We also saw fewer deaths from natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, and (despite the awful hurricane seasons in the Gulf of Mexico last autumn) high winds.

Secondly, the global community is making progress on coordinated preventative health programmes. Vaccination rates are at their highest ever (86%) for the major infectious illnesses (diphtheria, pertussis, measles, Hepatitis B and rotavirus). New Zealand has eliminated measles in the last year, joining Australia and North America. Overall deaths from measles have now dropped from 550,000 in 2000 to 90,000 in 2016. It is significant progress, but there is still a way to go. 27 Meanwhile, only 19 cases of wild poliomyelitis were recorded on earth in 2017. 28

Life expectancy continues to rise in most countries (the UK being a notable exception 29). Infant and maternal mortality rates are also coming down. Malaria vaccines will be rolled out to children in some of the most at-risk regions, and clinical trials of an HIV antibody that offers the potential of an effective preventative measure begin soon. 30

Finally, poverty is being reduced. Fewer people are living daily on less than $2 (£1.50). About 200,000 people are being lifted out of extreme poverty every day. This is mostly due to a currently booming global economy. The potential of poorer nations and communities to benefit from a strong global economy remains a challenge and an issue of social justice. Nevertheless, one of the surest ways to improve health is to improve personal and national wealth. Literacy has also continued to increase, as well as access to primary education (especially for girls) - both linked with increased health and well-being for communities. 31

Challenges for Christians

Persecution of Christians continues to be a major global issue 32 - one that has been increasingly acknowledged by the West (albeit reluctantly).

We are also unpopular because we are challenging the consensus on issues like gender, sexuality, family planning, personal autonomy and freedom of conscience. 33 The Western aid and development movements do not particularly like working with us, and while bodies like the WHO and UN are recognising the need to work with faith communities, Christians who hold to their values and beliefs are more likely to be marginalised. Yet the narratives of the secular West are increasingly challenged and other voices are being heard. I also suspect that the relevance of the WHO and UN in global health will change in the coming year. 34

In 2017, we remembered the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. Its impact on the world continues to this day, not least in medicine and healthcare. 35 Christians of all theological persuasions continue to minister to the poor and sick in the most deprived areas of the world because of our faith in a Saviour who reached down into the mess and misery of humanity to reconcile us to God. Let's continue to challenge the world's values not just by our words, but also by our actions.

Steve Fouch is CMF Connections Manager


1. Kates J, Michaud J, Kirzinger A, Muñana C. A Check Up on US Global Health Policy, After One Year of the Trump Administration. Kaiser Family Foundation 29 January 2018.

2. Sun L. CDC to cut by 80 per cent efforts to prevent global disease outbreak. Washington Post, 1 February 2018.

3. Fouch S. Reforming the WHO: Can the new General Secretary really be an agent for positive change? CMF Blogs 14 June 2017.

4. The Mexico City Policy: An Explainer. Kaiser Family Foundation 1 June 2017.

5. Edwards S. One year on, full impact of 'global gag rule' begins to emerge. Devex 19 January 2018.

6. Kaiser Family Foundation. Art cit

7. Edwards S. She Decides fund for family planning takes shape. Devex 21 July 2017.

8. Ruse A. Human Rights Groups Thank US for Rolling Back Abortion in Impending Report. Center for Family and Human Rights 8 March 2018.

9. Taylor P. Marie Stopes International: carrying out unsafe abortions in the UK and across the globe, using taxpayer millions. CMF Blogs 18 August 2017.

10. Oas R. Communities of faith and the global family planning movement: friends or foes? Christian Journal for Global Health 2017; 4(2):3-9.

11. Correnti L. State Department Finds Overwhelming Acceptance of US Abortion Funding Restrictions. Center for Family and Human Rights February 8 2018.

12. Kelemen M. 'Immediate Needs' In Syria After ISIS: USAID Chief Visits Devastated Raqqa, NPR 23 January 2018.

13. Lyons K. Yemen's cholera outbreak now the worst in history as millionth case looms. The Guardian 12 October 2017.

14. Diphtheria - Yemen, World Health Organization 22 December 2017.

15. Ratcliffe R. 'The future is very dark': Central African Republic's relentless cycle of suffering. The Guardian 18 December 2017.

16. South Sudan: Ceasefire violations, hostile propaganda undercut regional peace push, Security Council told. UN News 28 January 2018.

17. Rohingya crisis: US diplomat quits advisory panel. BBC News 25 January 2018.

18. Fouch S. Where have all the nurses gone? CMF Blogs 23 July 2017.

19. Donnelley L. Most hospitals and GP practices have shortage of doctors, survey suggests. Daily Telegraph 23 January 2018.

20. Resource Spotlight: Gender and Health Workforce Statistics. HRH Global Resource Centre.

21. You are not alone. Metoo.

22. Garrett L. The crime of gender inequality in global health. Foreign Policy 26 December 2017.

23. Fouch S. Changing the world one nurse at a time. CMF Blogs 20 October 2016.

24. Simpson B. Michele Barry: The Need for More Women Leaders in Global Health. Global Health Now 31 January 2018.

25. Global Health Workforce Alliance and World Health Organization. A Universal Truth: No Health Without a Workforce. Global Health Workforce Alliance November 2013.

26. Kenny C. Nine ways the world got a lot better in 2017. Vox 7 January 2018.

27. Measles outbreak in five English regions. BBC News 18 January 2018.

28. Ibid

29. Pasha-Robinson L. Life expectancy plummets in parts of UK, data reveals, The Independent 17 January 2018.

30. Kristoff K. Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History. New York Times 6 January 2018.

31. Ibid

32. The 2018 Open Doors World Watch List. Open Doors 2018.

33. Fouch S. Family planning — 'summit of a mess'. CMF Blogs 18 July 2017.

34. Fouch S. Reforming the WHO: Can the new General Secretary really be an agent for positive change? CMF Blogs 14 June 2017.

35. Saunders P. The Reformation and Medicine. CMF Blogs 4 November 2017.

Article written by Steve Fouch

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  • The Conscientious Objection (Medical Activities) Bill:Baroness O'Loan deserves our full support
  • Fixing the NHS: A role for churches
  • Medical abortion: concerns about taking a pill at home
  • Debate over alternative medicine re-surfaces:NHS funding for homeopathy withdrawn
  • Guarding the price of freedom
  • The juggling act
  • Healthcare in interesting times
  • Faith and freedom from addiction
  • Advice you can trust
  • A call to rest
  • Faith and tattoo culture
  • Popping social bubbles
  • Reviews
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  • Do not hold me
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