October 07, 2020

We talk a lot today about public health policy issues on a global stage. The term ‘global health’ first appeared in scientific literature in the 1940s,1 and was used as a foundation for the creation of the World Health Organization in 1948.2 However, as a matter of public policy, it wasn’t discussed much, even as recently as the 1990s.

The twenty-first century has already brought a lot of change. Economies have become increasingly interconnected. Airline travel has become more affordable, allowing more people to travel across the country or around the world in a short amount of time. In the 90 years after the first commercial airline flight in 1914,3 two billion passengers utilized global air travel. That number doubled in only 13 years, reaching over four billion passengers worldwide in 2017.4 In addition to this rapid and frequent movement of humans all over the globe, economic crisis, climate change, and political unrest have exacerbated global public health concerns. World leaders have seen it as a moral imperative to assist developing nations and those in low-income areas to address public health policy issues that affect everyone.5

In 2000, governmental representatives from 189 countries signed the Millennium Declaration, intended to mitigate human suffering and address root causes of health disparities. Through worldwide partnerships and cooperation, we started to tackle long-standing global health issues.5

Even with coordinated efforts, these five public health policy issues remain a significant concern today.

1. The Environment and Climate Change

At first glance, it might not seem that the environment and a changing climate would be intertwined with global health outcomes, but as average temperatures increase worldwide, there are significant ripple effects for global health. A 2018 report published in the public health journal The Lancet highlighted just how much climate change poses a threat to global health.6

In its analysis of studies from 24 academic institutions and the United Nations, the report included warnings and predictions, and noted distressing current occurrences. Crop yields around the world are declining, and diseases that previously occurred only in tropical climates have emerged in new areas, including the United States. Extreme heat waves pose significant risk to the very young, the very old and people who suffer from respiratory disease. Other extreme weather events such as flooding, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes can spread food- and water-borne disease more rapidly. In addition to causing food and water shortages and the risk of malnutrition, they have already forced mass migration of huge populations and increased international tensions.7

2. Access to Essential Health Services, Medication and Vaccines

Growing economic disparities have created shortages in available health services, especially in the poorest nations. As a result, there is an almost 20-year gap in average life expectancy between rich and poor countries. Non-communicable diseases are also increasing worldwide, including cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory illness and heart disease. They are expensive to treat, and adequate ongoing care is out of reach for many people.8

To add to these challenges, approximately one in four health facilities around the world do not have access to sanitary water. In many of these areas, the population also lacks access to safe drinking water, which leads to higher disease rates.8 Diagnostic tools, vaccines and medications that could easily prevent, treat or even cure diseases are inaccessible for one-third of the world’s population. Even when medications are available, many people don’t have health insurance and cannot afford them.9

3. Economic Insecurity

The gap between rich and poor is wider now than it has ever been, according to a 2020 United Nations (UN) report.10 The world’s richest one percent (with net worth over $1 million) own 44 percent of total global wealth. Adults with less than $10,000 comprise more than 56 percent of the population, but only own two percent of the wealth.11

Even in developed nations, widespread economic insecurity leads to significant public health concerns. The economically insecure population in the U.S.—defined as those not having stable, sufficient income to meet basic needs—has grown from 30 to 34 percent since 2000.12 For these individuals, even a short-term illness or the loss of a job can lead to crushing financial hardship. Many people suffering from economic insecurity have trouble getting enough food for proper nutrition and cannot access healthcare services. Even a minor illness can result in significant long-term health issues, and people without enough economic resources often put off treatment for major illnesses such as cancer or chronic disease, which can be deadly.

In a 2011 speech to the World Health Organization, Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said, “Our world is dangerously out of balance. The gaps in health outcomes, within and between countries, are greater now than at any time in recent history … A world that is greatly out of balance is neither stable nor secure.”5 Addressing economic inequality and insecurity is an essential part of global public health policy.

4. Infectious Disease Treatment and Prevention

Infectious diseases that can be treated with existing medication kill approximately four million people a year, most of them poor.8 These include:

  • HIV
  • Tuberculosis
  • Hepatitis
  • Malaria
  • Sexually-transmitted infections

In addition, a number of vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and measles—including some that were on the brink of extinction—are coming back. In areas with limited healthcare services and a lack of funding, vaccines and drugs to treat people are scarce. It requires global health policies that emphasize funding from wealthier nations, as well as more investment in research and development, to figure out affordable ways to diagnose, treat and vaccinate against these diseases.

5. Chronic Disease Prevention and Management

The prevalence of non-communicable chronic diseases—especially heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and cancers—is a significant threat to global health. They account for 71 percent of all global deaths (41 million people a year), disproportionately affecting people in low- and middle-income countries, and are closely linked to poverty.13

Several of the factors that increase the risk of these diseases are modifiable behaviors, such as smoking, excess alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and physical activity, and an unhealthy diet. For many people, these risks are combined with limited access to adequate healthcare and high cost for treatment. There are effective solutions that governments and public health officials can use to reduce the risks, but a coordinated effort is essential to improve job opportunities, address poverty, and improve preventive screenings, detection and treatment options.


While the list of public health policy issues is long and daunting, public health professionals are studying and tackling these challenges every day. Kent State University offers an online Master in Public Health degree to prepare you for a career in this critically important field. Whether you choose to specialize in Health Policy and Management, Social and Behavioral Sciences or Epidemiology, you’ll be prepared to take on some of the most important global health concerns of our time.

Learn more about our program today and take the first steps toward changing the world as a global public health policy expert.

1. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7136700/
2. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from who.int/about/who-we-are/history
3. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from space.com/16657-worlds-first-commercial-airline-the-greatest-moments-in-flight.html
4. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from statista.com/statistics/564717/airline-industry-passenger-traffic-globally/
5. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from who.int/dg/speeches/2011/globalhealth_20110613/en/
6. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from nytimes.com/2018/11/28/climate/climate-change-health.html
7. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from cdc.gov/climateandhealth/policy.htm
8. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from who.int/news-room/photo-story/photo-story-detail/urgent-health-challenges-for-the-next-decade
9. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from who.int/medicines/areas/coordination/access-medicines-project/en/
10. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from un.org/development/desa/dspd/world-social-report/2020-2.html
11. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from credit-suisse.com/media/assets/corporate/docs/about-us/research/publications/global-wealth-report-2019-en.pdf
12. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from policylink.org/sites/default/files/100m_Portrait_2pgr_11-21-18.pdf
13. Retrieved on August 11, 2020 from who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases

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