Do We Know what Ails the World?

What ails the world?  

One could expect various responses to this question if asked on a survey.   For example, If you were to ask me (before I heard Jeremy Smith speak about his book Epic Measures) I might have listed the various deadly diseases one hears in gossip and the news.  This could include AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, and anything I may find in a google search for the “deadliest diseases on earth.”  From my scholastic perspective, the immediate intent would be to list ailments backed by numbers.  Number of people killed by the disease and number of people living with the disease–these are the numbers we care about.  Until recently, my answer to this question would likely be driven by the assumption that my response did not matter, because someone out there already knew the answer and had the data to back it up.

It seems simple, but if I have learned anything from doing research with Professor Kim Dionne it is that numbers can be deceiving.  Sure, it is a safe assumption that someone (many someones) have done research into global health and what ails the world.  The real question is not that the numbers are there, but if those numbers are correct.  

How would you collect data to answer this question?  A survey? Health records? Death certificates? Phone calls to every doctor in your area?  How big is a reasonable sample size for a survey of people’s current health?  The world has billions of people living in it now, much less billions of people who have died.  For that matter, how do we define an ailment?  Does it have to kill you?

In the United States being healthy is popularly perceived as a personal attribute related to one’s diet, exercise, cleanliness, and genetics.  Thus, when something ails you it is either because you encountered something non-sanitary or by luck you have bad genetics.  By this measure just because there is something ailing someone, does not mean they are not a healthy person or not going to live a long life.  

In order to ask these questions, you also have to recognize that across the world what is perceived as an “ailment” varies across communities and cultures.  When the World Health Organization (WHO) does global health studies, does it ask communities to list causes of death or does it specifically ask about the prevalence of certain diseases like AIDS.  For that matter, are the people answering these surveys incentivized to provide accurate information?

A better question to begin with might be, how do people perceive their ailments and what resources do they have to address them.  In the end, if the people of the world agree on anything it is the existence of human rights.  No matter what is ailing someone, they should have access to services that allow them to deal with that ailment in whatever way they see fit.  

In conclusion, I don’t have answer to this question other than…its complicated but very important.