Enhancing Medical Technologies in Developing Nations

September 26, 2017
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It’s no secret that developing countries have a dire need for more medical technologies, both in terms of quantity and quality. While there have been improvements in recent decades when it comes to tackling the most basic healthcare issues — such as infant mortality and malaria, to name a few — better, more advanced medical technologies for developing countries are now required.

In much of the developing world, being diagnosed with a complex disease or injury is often a literal death sentence for those who cannot afford treatment. However, while those lives are just as important as the starving children often featured on charity campaigns, they get far less attention from the media — and from people’s wallets.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Thanks to increasing international coordination, it’s been possible to enhance medical technologies significantly across the developing world. There are a few ways aid agencies and healthcare providers are helping to slowly revolutionize medical care in poor countries — but first of all, it’s worth asking the question of why we should be caring about such technologies when the basics, like hunger and malaria, are far from defeated.

As Countries Develop, Different Diseases Are Mushrooming

The traditional causes of death in poor countries remain a huge issue to tackle. Millions of people every year die from diseases like diarrhea (1.5 million died in 2012 from that disease alone, in fact) that could have been prevented using medical tech that’s been available for decades and is widespread in Western countries.

But these diseases are also getting a ton of attention from development organizations — who can forget that time when Bill Gates released a cloud of mosquitoes at a TED Talk to make a point about how deadly malaria is?

However, there are a whole host of other, less well-known diseases that kill untold numbers as well every year, while some countries that are developing fast, like India or China, are increasingly suffering from rich-world health problems such as diabetes. Additionally, cancer, road accidents, obesity, diabetes and diseases related to pollution are on the rise — just look at the statistics.

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In 2002, diarrhea was one of the top ten killers worldwide. Ten years later, it is down to number seven, but road accidents have skyrocketed to one of the top ten causes of death worldwide.

Increasing Access Is Key

So what can be done to confront this growing crisis? As is argued in a recent paper from the Harvard School of Public Health, the one thing aid agencies and governments alike need to get right is access. That doesn’t only mean making drugs cheap enough for the poor to afford —  although that is very important. It also means constructing supply chains that take into account social values, economics, government capacity and a host of other factors.

In some parts of the world, getting to a hospital can take one to two days. Indeed, access can mean the failure or success of potentially life-saving medical products. The Harvard paper uses the example of the female condom, which was showered with funds from a prominent donor but failed to take hold in many countries because access was an afterthought.

Fortunately, though, health workers are getting better at improving access to healthcare — hospitals have new drugs and roads to hospitals have improved. The fight against HIV/AIDS is one prominent example. By the end of this year, more than 18 million HIV-positive people will have access to antiretroviral drugs — a sizable chunk of the almost 40 million people living with HIV worldwide.

The result is clear: HIV deaths have decreased from 1.7 million of deaths worldwide in 2000 to 1.5 million ten years later. Even in desperately poor countries like Zimbabwe, HIV prevalence has gone down in recent years. In the case of HIV, it wasn’t just loads of money and media attention that created a path to solving the problem — it was a thorough commitment that every possible person with HIV could have regular access to the drug. Although the fight isn’t nearly over, it has already proven to be a model for tackling other kinds of rarely-discussed public health problems.

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Fighting the Forgotten Public Health Wars: Cars and Cigarettes

Another billionaire philanthropist, former New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg, has pioneered a concerted, $250 million approach to reducing the number of automobile fatalities in the developing world. But first, a bit of context, because it’s a huge and seemingly invisible health problem.

In rapidly developing countries, more and more people are buying motorcycles and cars as they get richer — something that has pushed vehicle accidents further up the top 10 deadliest causes of death worldwide, with poor and middle-income countries suffering far more than developed ones. An “access-first” framework is useful here too: Bloomberg’s latest initiative has poured millions of dollars into public awareness campaigns and lobbying efforts to get poor countries to pass comprehensive vehicle safety and helmet legislation.

It may be too early to tell if it has worked. But a discussion of enhancing medical technology in poor countries would be amiss without mentioning one of the simplest life-saving devices out there: a proper helmet. Smoking is another huge public health issue and one that aid agencies and governments are paying more attention to. It is, after all, the reason for 1 in 10 deaths worldwide. But an increasing number of countries are passing smoking limitations, something that’s great news for global public health.

Enhanced Medical Care for the Global Poor Still Has a Long Way to Go

All this doesn’t mean poor countries have it good. They don’t. In rich countries, 70% of deaths are of people above the age of 70 — a relatively old age by most accounts. In poor ones, though, 40% of those who die are children, while far larger proportions of people die from lung cancer, road accidents, and increasingly diseases such as diabetes.

The global health community must continue fighting the good fight and ensuring that the highest proportion of people possible have access to healthcare that not only deals with the most basic problems but newer ones as well.