Local roles in global health

The Centers for Disease Control, the Carter Center and Emory University are among them. So is CARE, a leading global poverty-fighting organization that traces its roots to American humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of World War II, when many countries faced devastating poverty.

And the interests of several of our large companies such as Coca-Cola and UPS span the globe. To have success in emerging markets, those companies need the economic stability that can only exist with a healthy population.

Safe, reliable water supplies are key to world health.

Which brings us to the recent “Atlanta Summit on Sustaining American Leadership in Global Health & Water.” The event was organized by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta in cooperation with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and CARE.

The impressive gathering included an array of speakers and discussions on important global health concerns — and how some of these Atlanta institutions fit in.

Wayne Lord, the president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, said the summit was hatched with the realization of the expertise around global health that so many institutions in Atlanta possess. And he noted that water supply remains a top-of-mind issue in Georgia.

One of the key forces behind the conference was Helene Gayle, head of CARE. She has spent much of her career engaged in improving health and economic circumstances for people all over the world, especially Africa.

“We’ve always felt there was uniqueness to what Atlanta had to offer,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the institutions in Atlanta to pull together.”

Speakers at the conference emphasized the critical importance of health and eradicating disease — and how important it is for average Americans to understand that.

If developing countries are constantly battling poverty and disease, not only does it make for instability and wars, diseases can quickly spread elsewhere in the world.

And it’s difficult for companies to invest in these places if they’re disease-ridden — further stunting economic growth and fostering ongoing poverty.

Among some highlights of the conference:

● The Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey of Americans on the U.S. role in global health. It said the public greatly overestimates how much the federal budget spends on foreign aid, and that it’s not an issue that’s high on the list of most Americans’ concerns. The study also pointed out that it may be possible to change American attitudes with an information campaign — although probably not in an election year.

● The leaders of the conference issued “The Atlanta Declaration of U.S. Leadership in Improving the World’s Health.” This document has several purposes, and it provided a formal commitment for local institutions to work together. It’s also seen as a way to influence public policy and get people outside the typical Washington-based circles to engage in the issue.

● Water is the key to global health. As Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson said in the keynote speech: “Without clean water, you’re not going to have global health.” He called supporting the development of water supplies for emerging countries a good investment for the United States.

Of course, we know a little about difficulties around water supplies here in Georgia, as the state continues its effort toward solving that decades-long issue.

But in much of the world, the issue is immediate and life-threatening. People walk for hours to get a small jug of water. Wars are fought over water. Many people die because they drink water that is unsafe — when relatively simple efforts could eliminate that risk.

And while the need for water is obvious when it comes to the products of a company like Coca-Cola, it goes beyond what the company might put in a bottle.

Coca-Cola has a worldwide program that supports protecting and providing water to communities. It’s good business. Companies need healthy employees and healthy customers in emerging countries. Coke and other companies at the conference emphasized that without good water supplies, economies can’t grow.

We often hear that the world is more connected than ever before, and this conference provided plenty of evidence for that. Speakers emphasized how the United States is joined to even the most remote places in the world when it comes to water and health — and so citizens ought to care about how our foreign policy affects those places.

“We’re all connected by the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat,” said Thomas R. Friedan, director of the CDC.

And some of those strongest connections are to Atlanta.

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