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Vol. LXII, No. 3
February 5, 2010

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Harvard’s Frenk Speaks on Globalization and Health

Shown at the Barmes Lecture are (from l) NIDCR director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Dr. Julio Frenk, FIC director Dr. Roger Glass and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins
Shown at the Barmes Lecture are (from l) NIDCR director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Dr. Julio Frenk, FIC director Dr. Roger Glass and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard School of Public Health, recently spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in Masur Auditorium on “Globalization and Health: The Role of Knowledge in an Interdependent World.” A leading authority on global health, Frenk was the guest speaker at the 2009 Barmes Global Health Lecture. NIDCR and the Fogarty International Center jointly host the annual lecture, which honors the late David Barmes, a special expert for international health at NIDCR.

“If we are to meet the challenges and reap the opportunities of an increasingly interdependent world, we need to renew global cooperation in health,” Frenk said. “In this renewal process science plays an absolutely critical role.” He called for international cooperation on health issues affecting people around the world and said that domestic and global health are now interconnected.

Frenk described global health issues as more complex today than ever before. Global health should no longer be thought of simply in terms of communicable diseases in developing countries, he said. Communicable diseases such as swine flu, HIV and others affect people all over the world. Chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes now also appear in developing nations as their populations adopt Western habits.

Because of increases in life expectancy, larger urban populations and slowed fertility rates, there has been a fundamental shift in patterns of disease, he said. That shift is toward higher age groups and toward chronic conditions, whether communicable or non-communicable.

Frenk explained that, in fact, the whole meaning of illness has been transformed. “Previously, the experience of disease was marked by a succession of acute episodes from which one either recovered or died,” he said. “Now, people spend substantial parts of their lives in less than perfect health, coping with a chronic condition. Illness may not always kill us, but it always accompanies us.”

Knowledge is the key for improving health around the world, he said. “Research is a value in itself, an essential part of human culture,” he explained. “At the same time, knowledge has an instrumental value as a means to improve health.” That knowledge, Frenk said, can be translated into new diagnostic technologies and new treatments and can be used by individuals as well to improve their personal health and hygiene practices.

Knowledge can also be translated into evidence that provides a scientific foundation both for specific health care services and for policy formulation, he said. He discussed his experiences as Mexico’s health minister and his implementation of comprehensive national health insurance, which expanded access to health care to tens of millions of previously uninsured Mexicans. He said the reform began with scientifically derived evidence and culminated with rigorous evaluation; he described the program as “a textbook case of evidence-based policy designed and implemented making use of the best available knowledge.”

Frenk said he remains optimistic about the international community’s ability to face complex global health challenges and about the application of scientific knowledge for solving those challenges. “Knowledge will continue to be the key asset to sharpen our understanding of problems and to create novel solutions,” he said. “In our turbulent world, still scarred all too often by intolerance and exclusion, science remains as the most powerful force for enlightened social transformation.” NIHRecord Icon

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