First with the 2014 Ebola outbreak and now with the Zika virus, Americans are becoming reacquainted with the fear of infectious disease. But although Ebola and Zika are both serious public health threats, they pale in comparison to three other diseases in terms of inflicting suffering and loss of life around the world — tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
As a daughter of immigrants, I have always had an interest in the global implications of health-related issues. This interest has compelled me to volunteer with RESULTS, a national organization aimed at ending poverty worldwide by influencing legislation — mostly through the work of volunteer advocates. It's also fueled my work in the field of rehabilitation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Through research and travel, I have come to realize how the standard of living and human rights we enjoy in this country are but a dream for so many others across the world. The only thing that separates me from them is the luck of my birthplace.
Globally, the World Health Organization estimates 9.6 million people fell ill with TB in 2014 alone and 1.5 million died from the disease. There were 214 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2015, with almost half a million of those individuals dying from this curable disease. And to date, 78 million people have been infected with HIV, with 35 million people having died from AIDS-related illnesses. It's important to note that the impact of these diseases is not limited to those who are killed. Survivors can experience disability, loss of income and poverty, emotional trauma and social stigma and abuse.
These threats may seem remote to many Arkansans, but they are much closer than one might think. Arkansas had 93 cases of TB in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, giving the state a higher TB rate than the national average. (Many of the TB infections that year occurred within Arkansas's Marshallese community.) Although the overall annual number of TB cases reported in the U.S. has declined for years, experts worry about emerging antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacterium that causes TB. About 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. each year (there were eight reported cases in Arkansas in 2014) and that number is rising. And in 2014, there were 5,456 Arkansans living with HIV. Our own health here in the U.S. depends on the management of these diseases overseas.
The single most important element in the fight against these epidemics is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a public-private international financing organization responsible for 80 percent of the external funding that combats the three diseases worldwide. It is projected that by the end of this year, more than 22 million lives will have been saved by the Global Fund.
The U.S. government has led the way in financing the Global Fund in the past, and on Aug. 31, the Obama administration pledged to replenish the fund with up to $4.3 billion over the next three years, subject to congressional approval. In the past, such replenishment has attracted bipartisan support, and RESULTS hopes the same will hold true this time. Arkansas Senator John Boozman, a Republican, supports the appropriation.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Thokozile Phiri, the executive director of Facilitators of Community Transformation, a health organization in Malawi. She knows firsthand the devastating impact of infectious diseases, having lost her father and her brother to TB and HIV. During a recent conference call, Ms. Phiri told us, "It was every week that people used to go to funerals, burying their uncles, their sisters, even their brothers," she said. "The coming of the Global Fund changed the whole scenario because people were able to access free drugs and diagnostics."
Diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and malaria require us to acknowledge our global citizenship, because they know no borders. Phiri summed it up for me when she said, "My first point is about global solidarity ... each life matters when it comes to health access." We all have a role to play.
Dr. Abigail Akande is a Global Policy Volunteer with RESULTS Arkansas and an Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. For more information, visit RESULTS.org.