How much would it take to end health gaps?

Dr. Amit Katakwal examines a patient at a local community health center in Delhi, India. Bridging the health gap between rich and poor nations is feasible in the next 22 years. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Bridging the health gap between rich and poor nations is feasible in the next 22 years, but it will require the international community to refocus its assistance, and explore inexpensive but innovative interventions to curb emerging health issues, such as noncommunicable diseases.

That’s what 25 leading global health experts and economists noted in a new report recently published in the leading medical journal Lancet. In the report, the authors laid out an “ambitious” investment plan for governments and donors to follow to help secure the lives of 10 million people in low- and middle-income countries by 2035.

The experts recommend that the international community spend at least $70 billion a year on health, a huge sum at a time of shrinking aid budgets. But Lawrence Summers, president emeritus and professor at Harvard University who led the report, argued that the figure is less than 1 percent of the extra annual GDP by 2035 resulting from economic growth in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

The report forecasts real GDP growth per year from now to 2035 for low-income countries at 4.5 percent and and lower-middle-income economies at 4.3 percent.

Reaching that amount however is only part of the plan. In order for the global health community to reach its goal, donors would have to focus their investments more on the “provision of public goods,” instead of just channeling all their aid toward the treatment of a specific disease, or providing financial support to a particular country.

“The role of international assistance, while still vital, is going to increasingly emphasize scientific research, provide templates and models that can be emulated, and focus on development of techniques and dissemination of information,” Summers said.

He also underlined the importance of increasing investments in research and development. He said increasing annual spending on research to $6 billion by 2020 “would have enormous payoffs” in terms of the development of new drugs, or other health-related technologies, and that middle-income countries could potentially foot half of that amount.

As to tackling NCDs and new infectious threats, the report underscores the importance of putting in place fiscal policies.

For instance, by heavily taxing cigarettes or unhealthy food, individuals could be discouraged from purchasing them and therefore curb diseases such as lung cancer or obesity, or governments could make use of the tax revenue to strengthen their own health systems, or put NCDs under control. The report however notes that taxes or price increases need to be substantial to change behaviors.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.