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A diverse look at global health issues.

US opposition to ambitious Indian program a 'direct attack on the right to food'

Opinion: The Obama administration's objection to India's newly approved Food Security Act is an act of hypocrisy.
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A low-wage earning Indian day laborer removes excess rice from a bag at a grains depot near New Delhi on August 27, 2013, one day after the Indian parliament passed a flagship $18 billion program to provide subsidized food to the poor that is intended to "wipe out" endemic hunger and malnutrition in the aspiring superpower. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

BALI, Indonesia — In the lead-up to this week’s World Trade Organization negotiations, the Obama administration has tried to block the implementation of a new program approved by the Indian government that could help feed its 830 million hungry people in a cost-effective way.

The Obama administration’s objection to the program is a direct attack on the right to food, and it threatens to kill the chances for any agreement at the WTO.

The Indian government’s newly approved Food Security Act is one of the world’s most ambitious efforts to reduce chronic hunger. Under the new program, the Indian government will buy staple foods from small farmers at administered prices, generally above market levels, thereby supporting the incomes of some of the country’s most impoverished people. From those stocks, the government will provide food to the poor, generally at below-market prices, and to public initiatives such as school-based lunch programs.


'Gun disease' afflicts Myanmar's gold miners

Gold miners drill without respiration equipment and frequently develop a lung disease that slowly kills them.

MANDALAY, Myanmar — In the gold mines of Sinktu and Thabait Kyin, in the Mandalay division of Myanmar, gold mining is famous. More than 30 gold mines are active here, but the scene doesn't look much like wealth. Half-naked men with rusty pneumatic drills and homemade dynamite are lowered 500 feet on fraying ropes into holes in the ground. Covering their faces with rags, they drill gold ore from the stone.

“We break the rocks with high pressured guns, but breathe the small particles that come from breaking the stone. We contract lung infections that we call 'gun disease,'" says Wat Tay, 35, a gold miner from Sintku Township.

Through the night groups of men squat above mine shafts, ankle deep in muddy puddles, waiting to haul out ore or winch up their friends. After working in the mines for a decade, workers' lungs begin to give out, they say. Hidden in bamboo huts, attached to oxygen, they wheeze out their last days.


Secretive trade pact called 'most harmful ever' for affordable medicine

Global health advocates say the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the US and 11 other countries, is an attack on public health. Part of the proposal was published by WikiLeaks last week.

SALT LAKE CITY — “Humans before profit!”

“Stop the corporate coup!”

“We are stakeholders, too!”

These were the slogans of a rally outside Salt Lake City’s Grand American Hotel Tuesday, where about 120 people gathered to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the United States and 11 other countries.

While protesters marched through the rain, chanting and waving brightly colored signs, inside the hotel, negotiators met for the first time since WikiLeaks published a draft of the TPP’s chapter on intellectual property last week. In the leaked draft, US officials proposed strengthening and lengthening pharmaceutical patents while dismantling international laws designed to keep medicine affordable.


Harvard panel to look at new approaches to global health

A panel at the Harvard School of Public Health, which will be live streamed here on Friday, explores approaches to transforming the global health agenda.
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(left: Tom Miller, center: courtesy of The Global Fund, right: Kent Dayton/Courtesy)

BOSTON — The Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health will host a panel on Friday about how the field of global health is changing — and how it must change in the future. The event is presented in collaboration with GlobalPost and will be live streamed here, on GlobalPost’s Pulse blog, starting at 10 a.m.


How gender bias hides itself in the global health field

Science is a long way from achieving gender equality, say women leaders in the field, but many scientists of both genders can't see it.
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A polio vaccinator administers oral drops to a child in the Dawanau district of Kano, northern Nigera, on October 28, 2013 during a polio immunization campaign. (Aminu Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — On day three of the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Washington, DC, I waited for a much-needed cup of coffee behind a trio of attendees deliberating their next move.

The conference gathered 3,600 doctors and public health professionals from some 100 countries to discuss the newest developments in tropical medicine and global health. I was invited to present about global health and the media, and stayed on an extra day to attend some sessions and report.

One member of the trio suggested to his colleagues that they head across the street for breakfast, and his female colleague flipped through the schedule read aloud the title of the session she would miss that morning: “Promoting Women Leaders in Global Health.”

She looked up with a bored expression and said, “No, thank you.”

Perplexed by her nonchalance, I went to the panel. In the room were about 100 women (I also counted six men) who were anything but nonchalant about the issue. Throughout the session, presenters and audience members made compelling cases for why they think the gender disparity in the field of global health is important to discuss.


Typhoon Haiyan: Using keywords and hashtags to help the Philippines

A new project combines computer-generated algorithms and volunteers to quickly sift through social media noise during disasters.
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A man sits amongst the wreckage of his devastated home in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan on November 13, 2013 in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan, packing maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, slammed into the southern Philippines and left a trail of destruction. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Since Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines on Saturday, reducing whole neighborhoods to rubble and killing an estimated 2,500 people, Sheena Opulencia hasn’t taken a break. 

When she finds a spare minute between meetings and phone calls for her job as an information manager for ACF International in Manila, she pulls out her smart phone and sifts through hundreds of messages and photos that have been posted on social media about the typhoon.

With the flick of her index finger she categorizes tweets calling for food, water and electricity. She rates photos of the chaos and destruction “mild” or “severe.” Flick. Flick. Flick.


Oxfam challenges brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle to help fix global food system

A campaign seeks to harness the power of the 10 biggest food companies to fight hunger, malnutrition, poverty and human rights abuses.
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Coca Cola cans are seen on a production line at a bottling plant near New Delhi, India. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Since February, four of the world’s largest food companies have officially embraced the United Nations' principles on empowering women. Coca-Cola has announced new plans to prevent water pollution among suppliers and Nestle became the first major brand to commit to work with local communities before making agricultural land deals.

The moves come six months after the food giants started working with the nonprofit Oxfam to identify agricultural policies that could be perpetuating hunger, poverty and human rights abuses. As part of the project, called “Behind the Brands,” Oxfam is acting as a sort of consultant to the 10 biggest food companies, including Pepsico, General Mills and Kellogg’s. At the same time, though, Oxfam has been loudly trumpeting the companies’ wrongdoings to the world using petitions and social media campaigns.


Red Cross leader explains how polio vaccination campaign in Syria could work

The UN announced it will vaccinate 10 million children in the Middle East against polio after several cases were found in Syria. But in a country ravaged by civil war, it’s a tricky proposition.
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A child receives a polio vaccine in Yemen. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten million young children in the Middle East will get a polio vaccine over the next several weeks in response to an outbreak in Syria, which had been free of the highly infectious, incurable disease for more than a dozen years. 

The United Nations announced the campaign last week after 22 children in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province became paralyzed. Ten cases have been confirmed as polio, which cripples and sometimes kills. Test results for the remaining 12 are expected within days. 

Under any circumstances, vaccinating 10 million people would require a lot of coordination and manpower. But in a country like Syria where civil war has mangled the health care system and driven millions from their homes, it’s a particularly tricky proposition.


Commentary: And the prize goes to ... genetically modified foods

This year's World Food Prize clearly supported genetically modified crops, but the conversation was one-sided.
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Images of advanced seed chipping machines inside Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Missouri. These machines are designed and built in-house and they allow the technicians to chip off tiny portions of seeds, which are scanned instantly for the perfect DNA of an elite corn seed. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa — This year’s World Food Prize went to three biotech engineers, all of whom have been instrumental in bringing genetically modified foods to your table.

Inside the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where the prize’s four-day program took place October 15-18, the message was clear: Technology is the answer to the world’s looming food shortages, and anyone who gets in the way isn’t putting farmers and the hungry first.

And you have to admire the laureates for their candor.

In their prepared press statements, they couldn’t have been clearer about what the prize means to them.

“The committee’s decision to award the World Food Prize to biotechnology researchers,” said Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta in a press release, “will help convey to consumers the value, utility and safety of genetically modified crops.”


Opinion: Mental health, the 'ugly stepchild of the global health movement'

Though mental illness accounts for 14 percent of the global burden of disease, it is often dismissed as marginal and too complex to address, especially in the developing world.
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An Afghan man prepares tea near his bed in a psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Kabul. Scarred by decades of war, social problems and poverty, more than 60 percent of Afghans suffer from stress disorders and mental health problems. (Shah Marai/Getty Images)

Ask anyone to name the most pressing global health issues and they’re likely to reel off a list that includes HIV, malaria, malnutrition and maybe even climate change.

All of these are real threats that carry with them dire consequences if we fail to address them. But there’s one issue that is not usually on that list, despite the grave danger it poses: mental illness.

World Mental Health Day is observed annually on October 10 by global giants including the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). Chances are, it’s not on your calendar – but it should be. According to WHO, mental illnesses account for 14 percent of the global burden of disease. And by 2030, the organization predicts, that number will rise to 20 percent. What’s more, the leading causes of disability worldwide are depression and other mental disorders, which afflict more than 450 million people.