Despite the fact that Ebola was discovered in 1976, few global citizens were truly aware of the virus until this last year when it ravaged portions of West Africa and Mali. The 2014 outbreak has claimed nearly 9,000 lives so far. Although this number seems ominous, many more will die from another cause entirely.
According to Jean-Pierre Habicht, an epidemiologist from Cornell University, 10 times the death toll of 9/11 die from malnutrition and completely preventable disease every day — and that number is solely comprised of children. Each year, 1.4 million children die from a lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, and entire families in developing nations are wiped out by diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that we haven’t seen in the developed world for centuries. While it’s clear that the majority of developing countries lacks necessary access to medical technology and facilities, it’s the health education imparted upon residents that ultimately saves lives.
When it comes to our own health in the United States, many of us depend heavily upon treatments for various ailments, cough syrup for a sore throat, painkillers for a headache, and more intrusive therapies for types of cancers and auto-immune diseases. However, an awareness of such maladies is still existent before we look for treatment. We know to wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and to refrain from alcohol and heavy labor while pregnant. Many living in developing countries have no such access to health education. In rural areas isolated from Western medicine, there’s little to no understanding of the importance of good nutrition, clean drinking water, prenatal care and safe sex.
In impoverished parts of the world all resources can’t be pooled towards health education in the face of war, conflict and political instability. But without good health and the partial security of life past the age of 10, what comfort is a world of peace? Establishing programs that arm citizens with knowledge in the face of illness lowers the prevalence of preventable disease and creates foundations for good health that, if and when needed, makes better use of medical technology. As important as technology is, allowing citizens to understand their environment also has the two-fold benefit of enabling them to create innovative solutions for disease that ultimately form a “true fit” to their lifestyles and values.
Culture plays a sizable role in preventing such foundations from forming when we take into consideration stereotypes regarding sexuality, gender and the role of religion in health. A balance between the two, while difficult, is still possible, and offering biomedicine alongside ethnomedical traditions gives people a choice that they would otherwise not have.
Our world is replete with problems; the threat of disease is often dwarfed by issues like unemployment, war and revolution. But to face problems and ultimately solve them, we must first understand what stands before us. Health education offers the third world a lens with which to see the path to health, and though the path may not always be straight, when equipped with knowledge we’re never alone.