Dr. Zunt begins our 6 AM meeting with a long draw of Seattle’s famous coffee. It is 1 PM in Ghana, 9 PM in China, and 3AM in Hawai’i where one dedicated Scholar is phoning from, unwilling to miss the chance to discuss the Fogarty Fellows’ first assignment with his colleagues: just what is global health?
Incredibly, this conversation is taking place between 21 people—most of whom hold at least one doctorate—scattered across eight countries, all struggling to define what they have dedicated 11 months, if not their entire lives to working on. Zunt, a neurologist at the University of Washington and the mentor leading the discussion, thinks of today’s topic as a part of crafting the perfect elevator speech: what do you tell grandma when she asks, “what do you do?” From their responses, you can tell the trainees have taken the question seriously.
The discussion begins with how global health differs from international health—which, as Eleanore Chuang notes, “European colonial powers established… in response to their countrymen returning from the ‘tropics’ with unusual diseases.” Clearly, the trainees are all proud to be working in a field that emphasizes a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to medicine, rather than the traditional vertical transmission of ideas and vaccines from colonial doctors to impoverished patients. Ruth Namazzi, a Ugandan pediatrician, concludes that international health “stresses more the differences between countries than their commonalities.”
This newest group of trainees agree that “[g]lobal health focuses on equality, not only health equity – health as a universal human right, but also equity in multilateral collaboration – both developed and developing countries sharing comparable responsibilities and opportunities” (Jing Gu). George Ayodo, a Kenyan Fellow focusing on malaria research makes a valid point that “[t]he training of scientists in low or middle income countries is a key to equity given that they are expected to play a key role in overcoming challenges of health practices.” One of the many aims of global health is to build health infrastructure and capacity in low and middle income countries, in order to curtail dependency on aid as well as acknowledge that “each country will have distinct obstacles to researching and/or implementing solutions [for global health challenges]” (Melanie Gasper). Even though health problems are universal, the contributing factors are not necessarily so.
Although the persons gathered for our virtual meeting share a passion for global health, their reasons for entering the field are as varied as they are. Fan Lee explains that she was drawn by the way it “examines the whole system, not just how a particular disease affects a specific individual, but how culture, stigma, education, economy, environment, infrastructure and many other societal and social constructs intertwine like spaghetti to influence health.” Whatever global health means to them, the trainees are ready to work for it, and obviously excited to be able to share their thoughts and experiences with other Fellows and mentors. Marilyn Kioko succinctly states “global health is an ideal.” And it is one these trainees are committed to.
by Nikki Eller