A review of the year’s most notable global health news stories, events and research breakthroughs, and a look towards future challenges in 2016 and beyond.
This year has seen a number of milestones achieved in the fight against infectious diseases. For the first time, a malaria vaccine has been approved and recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for pilot implementation. If deemed safe and effective, the vaccine will be a positive step forward in the fight against malaria in Africa, where the specific species that the vaccine targets is most prevalent and is responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people annually. In June, Cuba became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Furthermore, UNAIDS announced that, globally, the spread of HIV has been halted and reversed, with 15 million people now currently receiving antiretroviral therapy. These two achievements represent an important breakthrough in the prevention of HIV transmission and realising the goal of an AIDS-free generation. In September, WHO announced that Nigeria was no longer a polio-endemic country; just two countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan) have yet to stop polio transmission.
In West Africa, transmission of Ebola has ended in Sierra Leone, however, 19 months after the first case was reported, cases are still arising in Guinea and Liberia, and vigilance remains high in the region. Recent studies have detected the virus in semen, and other immune privileged sites, several months after infection, leading to some concern regarding possible sexual transmission of the virus. The risk is deemed low, but considering the unprecedented scale of the epidemic and numbers of survivors, the WHO and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have continued to encourage the promotion of safe sex practices. A vaccine for Ebola has also been developed and is close to approval.
2015 marked the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). During the 15 year initiative, the MDGs successfully galvanised political will, resulting in unprecedented efforts to reduce global poverty. Extreme poverty declined by more than half and reductions were seen in the proportion of undernourished people in developing regions and the number of out-of-school children of primary school age. Globally, the mortality rate of children under-five more than halved and maternal mortality fell by 44% worldwide. Yet not everyone has benefitted equally; the poorest and most disadvantaged in society have quite often been left behind.
The 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched this year, hopes to build on the MDGs and address these inequalities. It is an ambitious set of new goals, 17 in total with 169 targets altogether, centred on the vision of development through equality and the implementation of sustainable economic, social and environmental policies. Unlike the MDGs, health no longer takes centre stage, with only goal three, ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’, specifically addressing it. Whilst other goals have health related targets, addressing risk factors such as poor sanitation and malnutrition, there is some concern that there is no coherent vision for health in middle- and high-income countries where the health burden is predominantly from non-communicable diseases; risk factors such as unhealthy diet, obesity and inadequate physical exercise are not addressed.(1) The overall successes of the MDGs inspires hope that the same collective action and funding commitment will be directed towards the SDG agenda maintaining the momentum required to take on the global health challenges ahead.
1. Murray CJ. Shifting to Sustainable Development Goals–Implications for Global Health. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2015;373(15):1390-3.