Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fighting the Health War on Two Fronts

As any student of history will tell you, the surest way to lose a war is to fight on two fronts. For decades, developing countries have been fighting a war against persistent poverty, famine, and disaster-related illnesses like cholera and diarrhea. Resources were stretched to the breaking point in many countries as they struggled to build a health system that is responsive to a well-established set of health problems. So it probably came as welcome relief when economic fortunes turned rosy, and developing-country governments could allocate more resources to infrastructure and public services like health and education. Until, of course, the spoils of rapid economic development began to spoil.

Health systems across the developing world are suddenly dealing with a range of health issues that hitched a ride with prosperity: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease - to name only a few. It turns out that a sedentary fast-food lifestyle is as unhealthy for the Chinese as it is for Americans. In fact, the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank, calculated that the number of overweight and obese people in developing countries has quadrupled to one billion people in only 30 years.

In newly prosperous countries, this is not a transition; it's an addition to the normal roster of water-borne and tropical diseases which are still thriving in remote, rural areas. The opening of a new, unfamiliar front in the health war presents opportunities for both the development community and the private sector (e.g., pharma). With many years of data on the long-term cost of chronic diseases in developed countries, there is a compelling argument for even modest investment in nutrition, wellness and preventative programs. Such modern illnesses can by addressed by mobile-based information campaigns, digital reminders, and remote reporting and diagnostics. It's not very sporting to capitalize on another's misfortune. But mature-market providers can chalk it up to helping the new kids learn from past mistakes, and giving them a fighting chance in a historically uphill battle.