COMMENTARY: Doing good and doing it well: health for all in the 21st century

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Paul B. Thompson is president & CEO of MAP International, a Christian relief and development organization that addresses the health needs of those living in the world's poorest communities. He writes from Geneva, where he is an NGO delegate to the World Health Assembly, sponsored by the World Health Organization.)

GENEVA _ There is an axiom in global humanitarian work that"doing good is not enough; we must also do it well." This obligation has never been more pressing or more difficult, given the scope of the major challenges to health we face at the dawn of the new millennium.

Those challenges are being spelled out here in Geneva.

Speaking to a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) gathering at a meeting prior to the opening of the 1997 World Health Assembly, Dr. F.S. Antezana, deputy director general of the World Health Organization, said that"while the past two decades have been accompanied by profound and widespread improvements in the quality of life of the majority of the world's people, there has simultaneously been a widening of gaps in health and wealth both between and within most countries." Current data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate nearly 1.5 billion people live in absolute poverty. As Antezana argues,"This constitutes one of the greatest impediments to health for all." For this reason, combating poverty is seen by the WHO as the highest priority in development aid for poor nations. New policies announced this week give explicit emphasis to the need for integrated strategies that include debt reduction, credit provision and education of girls, as well as specific health interventions that target poor communities, women and children, and poverty-related diseases.

In addition to poverty, there are several other serious threats to future health. These include the adverse effects of urbanization and industrialization, rapid demographic and epidemiologic changes, and environmental factors that transcend national borders and have the potential to harm the health of future generations _ our"neighbors across time." How can the health gaps between rich and poor be bridged effectively? One important answer is to focus prime attention on the causes of death and disability that afflict the world's disadvantaged _ in other words, infectious and related diseases.

Worldwide, infectious diseases, maternal and perinatal conditions are killing seven times as many people among the world's poorest billion than the richest billion. Clearly, the poorer an individual is, the more likely he or she will die of an infectious disease.

In addition, life expectancy comparisons show that the poor die sooner than the rich. The comparison holds true within countries as well as between them. Thus, the poor stand to benefit much more than the rich from a continued emphasis in infectious diseases.

MAP International, like other humanitarian aid groups, is committed to addressing the"total health"needs of people who live in the world's poorest communities. We define total health as the capacity of individuals, families and communities to develop conditions that promote physical, emotional, spiritual and socio-economic well-being.

In Latin America and Africa, we are engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS. As a Christian organization, we believe the church has a profound role in educating, understanding, and compassionately caring for communities, families and individuals whose lives have been torn apart by this global pandemic.

Clearly, Jesus demonstrated his love and compassion for the sick, the oppressed, and the weak _ no matter how severe their financial or physical condition. In fact, he said"when you do unto the least of these ... you do unto me." MAP International is in Geneva this week in response to two profound calls: The call for all of us in the global humanitarian community to"do good and to do it well,"and a higher call as a Christian humanitarian agency to be effective stewards of the vision and resources God has given us to respond to the total health needs of those living in the world's poorest communities.

Both calls demand our very best.