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Visiting scholar urges global health community to “think like a politician”

IMG_0918With funding for global health on the chopping block in many nations, Stanford visiting professor David Heymann, MD, offered practical advice for the global public health community recently: Think like a politician.

In a talk on campus with Paul Costello, the School of Medicine's chief communications officer, Heymann, shown above on the right, discussed the importance of understanding how foreign policy decisions are made and positioning public health needs in a way that resonates with policymakers.

“We all need to be good politicians, as well as we need to understand politics,” Heymann said. “There’s a limited amount of money for public health and there are unlimited funds for defense, so we have to use the two together to get the agenda right to strengthen public health.”

Having led the global outbreak response to SARS at the World Health Organization, and served on the front lines of several Ebola outbreaks, Heymann, who is professor of infectious diseases of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and head of the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security, has seen the gaps in global security up close and understands the important role that national and local governments play.

Global security depends on a multilateral approach, he told the audience. The most effective way to achieve global security is by strengthening local capacity so that all countries have the ability to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats, Heymann said.

Despite shortcomings, including its criticized handling of the Ebola crisis and its reliance on voluntary (or donor) funding, Heymann maintains that the World Health Organization remains the necessary global health leader.

Health is a mission that’s “not just for one country, but for the world to do together," Heymann said.

As the U.S. has signaled budget cuts for global health, there is a shift in momentum to seek support from other countries and it will be important to help those leaders see why it’s in their best interest to contribute to global public health, Heymann said. But to do that requires considering the many competing priorities political leaders must balance.

“Public health is a long-term game,” Heymann said. “The public health community has to be better able to help others understand how and why investing in health infrastructure benefits in both the short and the long term.”

Previously: Stanford expert: Don't eliminate "one of the most effective tools we have to fight global diseases", Latest ban on U.S. global funding ignores science, Stanford researchers say and "A sense of panic": Concern about funding dominates global AIDS summit
Photo by Rachel Leslie

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