We live in a more connected world than ever before. The availability of rapid intercontinental travel means that a disease in one region can easily become a global concern, as the novel coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated in recent weeks.
We live in a world where the global effects of climate change, including changes in weather patterns, rising seas, and increased temperatures, have displaced people on low-lying islands, extended the range of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and increased the incidence of heat-related illnesses.
“The health challenges facing our world today are very different than those faced by previous generations,” Carmen Sceppa, dean of Northeastern’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, told an audience of students, researchers, clinicians and industry experts on Friday. “And they are further complicated by the environmental factors and the globalized world we live in.”
But we also live in a world where technological developments have opened up a wealth of opportunities in public health, although many of those advancements have yet to reach their full potential to do good.
“We aim to facilitate connections across researchers and industries, and provide a forum to explore how AI and interdisciplinary collaboration could enable visionary systems that empower people and their communities to achieve wellness and health equity,” Sceppa said at the Global Health in a Changing World conference, which was co-sponsored by several Northeastern colleges, Northeastern’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and Employer Engagement and Career Design at Northeastern, among others.
The two-day conference addressed how changes in global population, climate, and technology are shaping health and health solutions around the world.
The conference was a culmination of a year and a half of work and planning done by the Northeastern University Global Health Initiative, a student group led by fourth-year bioengineering and chemistry student and 2020 Rhodes scholar Kritika Singh.
“I wish, when I was starting off in global health, I had something like this,” Singh said. “We see how much the world is changing. People, planet, and technology need to change along with it in order to have a healthier and safer world.”
As people around the globe flee war, violence, poverty, and, increasingly, climate change, more developed regions around the world have an obligation to ensure that migrants and refugees have access to healthcare, said Andreas Pottakis, who holds the title of Greek Ombudsman, an independent authority whose mission includes safeguarding rights and combatting discrimination in Greece.
“Migration is a recurring theme in human history,” Pottakis said. “It is not a crisis, it is an evolving situation. It will be with us for the foreseeable future.”
Journalist and filmmaker Shaunagh Connaire told the story of a family of refugees from the conflict in Syria who were waiting in Lebanon to be resettled. The family believed they had been moved to the bottom of the list because one of their sons had a chronic illness. He died before they were able to get access to medical care, and their other son still needed treatment for an injury from a rocket attack.
“The way that we are approaching this subject matter today is not working—by simply saying we will make their lives miserable when they are here,” Pottakis said. “They will still come, because it is a matter of survival.”
And making sure these people have access to proper food, housing, and healthcare is in the public interest, argued Wendy Parmet, Matthews University Distinguished Professor of law and director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern.
“The health of migrants affects the health of native-born citizens and vice versa,” Parmet said. “We’re all in this together. We can’t build a wall against a virus. We can’t build a wall against aging. We can’t build healthy communities by scapegoating someone who looks different, or speaks a different language, or practices a different religion.”
“Climate change is really going to have profound impacts for the entire health care sector,” said Laura Kuhl, an assistant professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern. “Health impacts are going to affect everyone in the world, but the impacts will be most extreme for the most poor.”
As the planet continues to warm, these myriad health effects will continue to worsen.
Poorer households will be more vulnerable, Kuhl said, because they have fewer resources to dedicate to maining their health, acquiring clean water, or recovering from extreme weather events or other disasters.
“Numerous medical organizations have come together and issued a call to action on climate health and equity,” said Caren Grossbard Solomon, a physician and deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. “It is a true public health emergency.
Cutting usage of fossil fuels, which are contributing to climate change, could have a more immediate impact on our health as well, said Brita Lundburg, an infectious disease specialist, in a talk about how natural gas contributes to air pollution.
“There are human health risks from natural gas,” Lundburg said. “Because of its short residence time in the atmosphere, though, reducing emissions from methane has the potential to immediately improve health and safety.”
“Technology usually benefits the most those who need it the least,” said Gonzalo Bacigalupe, who studies disaster risk management. “In general, all sorts of technology innovations, at least in health care, have a tendency to deepen inequalities.”
Bacigalupe is using drone surveys to help communities in areas that are vulnerable to disasters such as landslides understand and mitigate the danger. A large portion of that work, he says, involves listening to what those communities are already doing.
Rumi Chunara, a computer scientist, agreed that technological advancements need to be driven by people in the community they are intended to benefit, and augment what local health systems are already doing. Chunara is using artificial intelligence techniques to try to improve disease modeling by identifying aspects of landscapes in satellite images that affect how a disease might spread. Standing water, for example, would provide areas for mosquitoes to breed.
Ozlem Ergun, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, has used her knowledge to create an automated tool to optimize the supply chain for the United Nations’ World Food Programme. Her students are continuing to improve it.
As multiple speakers said, global health is a concern for everyone. And solving global health issues takes a variety of skills.
“My first trip to help with Ebola in 2014, the 30 people I deployed with were doctors and nurses,” said Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, who works in disaster medicine. “I’m now deploying on Sunday to help with the coronavirus. I have data management specialists, I have a GIS person, I have a communication person, I have an anthropologist, I’ve got an engineer… The team, over that short period of time, has changed considerably.”