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What the data really tell you about global health

Posted on behalf of Declan Butler

In the run-up to the UN summit on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in New York on 19-20 September, this week’s edition of Nature has a new analysis piece on what the data say about the scale of the problem (see ‘UN targets top killers’), and an editorial about what should be done (see ‘Disease priorities’)

Both articles make the point that although existing and emerging health threats are very real, and that there is much more to be done to address them, what’s sometimes overlooked is that global health overall is improving substantially and rapidly. Moreover, the health improvements in many poorer nations have often been particularly impressive.

As Hans Rosling of TED fame (and in his day-job as an epidemiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm) has argued (see video), the old dichotomy of developed and developing countries is changing fast. In fact, the distinction is becoming increasingly obsolete, as it doesn’t even begin to capture the heterogeneity in the health and socioeconomic status of countries. To get an idea of the changes in health among countries over the past decades, Rosling’s Gapminder visualizations are worth exploring. For example, this one shows the stunning rise in life expectancy over the past century, and its relation to the growth of per capita income.

On the subject of global health visualizations, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, which was created in 2007, is producing some excellent global health data. It has produced visualizations that include a recent comprehensive analysis of worldwide mortality, which reveals major inequalities as well as the poor performance of the expensive healthcare system of the United States.


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