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World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan (left) and chair of the UW department of global health Judith Wasserheit at the UW Symposium on Global health. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

It’s easy to see global health as a far-off issue, one that doesn’t have much impact outside isolated parts of the world. But at a symposium on global health today at the University of Washington, leaders in the field argued just the opposite.

Speaking at the symposium in Seattle, Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, emphasized that challenges to global health could have ramifications far beyond health officials and war-torn countries. “In our world of radically increased interdependence, the forces that shape these challenges are universal, and they are not easily reversed,” Chan said.

To tackle these challenges, she and other global health leaders are looking to collaborate across borders, and across industries.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has previously worked at the UW, said he has been working to reach out to one partner in particular: the tech industry.

“The reason I’m going there is to bring a message: these are the issues, these are the problems we need help with,” Piot said. “They’re very good at problem solving, and actually waste far less time on what Freud called the narcissism of small differences that characterizes the health community and the academic community.”

But while there is great potential, Piot also took a dig at the industry’s obsession with innovation.

“They are driven by the innovation addiction, but not necessarily by trying to solve a question. Because a lot of the products that have come out of, let’s say, Silicon Valley and so on, they actually created a demand, it’s not because there was a demand. When you think of it, it’s quite extraordinary, and they’ve been very successful,” he said.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (right) and chair of the UW department of global health Judith Wasserheit at the UW Symposium on Global health. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Bringing that success to the world of global health will take work from both sides, he said, particularly understanding the requirements and ways of thinking on each side.

One thing he said is hard for tech people to grasp is the importance of regulation in health. Unlike many tech companies, the global health community must studiously examine the possible side effects of a product or project to have a complete and effective approach to a huge problem like eliminating a disease.

There are also smaller, but telling, differences.

“But just to go break through the vocabulary that both of us have is already a challenge,” Piot said. “The words disruptive and disruption is very positive in that world. For us, disruption is not something we want, it’s a big epidemic!”

Chan also emphasized the need for collaboration and warned against the possible evils of reckless consumption and creation.

“This is a unique time in history, where economic progress, improved living conditions, and greater purchasing power are actually causing more diseases instead of reducing them,” she noted, with skyrocketing obesity rates being one example. Social media are becoming a new voice with considerable force, and yet very few safeguards governing the accuracy of them.”

She also touched on less immediately relevant topics that still have effects on health: “Social media are becoming a new voice with considerable force, and yet (there are) very few safeguards governing the accuracy of them.”

The impact of climate change and the disruption to healthcare and health centers around the world as a result of armed conflict are other examples of seemingly unrelated issues that can have a huge impact on global health, and must be addressed.

Chan finished her speech with two warnings against views and policies that the Trump administration has espoused, particularly its skepticism of vaccines. While vaccines are the most effective and cost-efficient way to protect against disease, there is no evidence that they cause diseases like autism, a view which Trump has suggested or supported in the past.

She also took aim at attempts to deregulate the drug approval process in the FDA.

“This kind of thinking is extremely dangerous,” she said, saying that the government should not risk public health by giving in to industry pressure to make the drug approval process easier.

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