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Global health has emerged as an important field within medicine. Some scholars have defined global health as the field of study and practice concerned with improving the health of all people and achieving health equity worldwide, with an emphasis on addressing transnational problems. No single review can do much more than identify the leading problems in applying evidence-based medicine in settings of great poverty or across national boundaries. However, this is a moment of opportunity: only recently, persistent epidemics, improved metrics, and growing interest have been matched by an unprecedented investment in addressing the health problems of poor people in the developing world. To ensure that this opportunity is not wasted, the facts need to be laid out for specialists and laypeople alike. This chapter introduces the major international bodies that address health problems; identifies the more significant barriers to improving the health of people who to date have not, by and large, had access to modern medicine; and summarizes population-based data on the most common health problems faced by people living in poverty. Examining specific problems—notably HIV/AIDS (Chap. 197) but also tuberculosis (Chap. 173), malaria (Chap. 219), Ebola (Chap. 205), and key “noncommunicable” chronic diseases (NCDs)—helps sharpen the discussion of barriers to prevention, diagnosis, and care as well as the means of overcoming them. This chapter closes by discussing global health equity, drawing on notions of social justice that once were central to international public health but had fallen out of favor during the last decades of the twentieth century.


Concern about illness across national boundaries dates back many centuries, predating the Black Plague and other pandemics. One of the first organizations founded explicitly to tackle cross-border health issues was the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, which was formed in 1902 by 11 countries in the Americas. The primary goal of what later became the Pan American Health Organization was the control of infectious diseases across the Americas. Of special concern was yellow fever, which had been running a deadly course through much of South and Central America and halted the construction of the Panama Canal. In 1948, the United Nations formed the first truly global health institution: the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1958, under the aegis of the WHO and in line with a long-standing focus on communicable diseases that cross borders, leaders in global health initiated the effort that led to what some see as the greatest success in international health: the eradication of smallpox. Naysayers were surprised when the smallpox eradication campaign, which engaged public health officials throughout the world, proved successful in 1979 despite Cold War tensions.

At the International Conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata (in what is now Kazakhstan) in 1978, public health officials from around the world agreed on a commitment to “Health for All by the Year 2000,” ...

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