12.4 Global Public Health

Learning Objectives
  • Describe the entities involved in international public health and their activities
  • Identify and differentiate between emerging and reemerging infectious diseases

A large number of international programs and agencies are involved in efforts to promote global public health. Among their goals are developing infrastructure in health care, public sanitation, and public health capacity; monitoring infectious disease occurrences around the world; coordinating communications between national public health agencies in various countries; and coordinating international responses to major health crises. In large part, these international efforts are necessary because disease-causing microorganisms know no national boundaries.

The World Health Organization (WHO)

International public health issues are coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations. Of its roughly $4 billion budget for 2015–16[1], about $1 billion was funded by member states and the remaining $3 billion by voluntary contributions. In addition to monitoring and reporting on infectious disease, WHO also develops and implements strategies for their control and prevention. WHO has had a number of successful international public health campaigns. For example, its vaccination program against smallpox, begun in the mid-1960s, resulted in the global eradication of the disease by 1980. WHO continues to be involved in infectious disease control, primarily in the developing world, with programs targeting malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis, among others. It also runs programs to reduce illness and mortality that occur as a result of violence, accidents, lifestyle-associated illnesses such as diabetes, and poor health-care infrastructure.

WHO maintains a global alert and response system that coordinates information from member nations. In the event of a public health emergency or epidemic, it provides logistical support and coordinates international response to the emergency. The United States contributes to this effort through the CDC. The CDC carries out international monitoring and public health efforts, mainly in the service of protecting US public health in an increasingly connected world. Similarly, the European Union maintains a Health Security Committee that monitors disease outbreaks within its member countries and internationally, coordinating with WHO.


  • Name the organizations that participate in international public health monitoring.

Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Diseases

Both WHO and some national public health agencies such as the CDC monitor and prepare for emerging infectious diseases. An emerging infectious disease is either new to the human population or has shown an increase in prevalence in the previous twenty years. Whether the disease is new or conditions have changed to cause an increase in frequency, its status as emerging implies the need to apply resources to understand and control its growing impact.

Emerging diseases may change their frequency gradually over time, or they may experience sudden epidemic growth. The importance of vigilance was made clear during the Ebola hemorrhagic fever epidemic in western Africa through 2014–2015. Although health experts had been aware of the Ebola virus since the 1970s, an outbreak on such a large scale had never happened before (Figure 12.14). Previous human epidemics had been small, isolated, and contained. Indeed, the gorilla and chimpanzee populations of western Africa had suffered far worse from Ebola than the human population. The pattern of small isolated human epidemics changed in 2014. Its high transmission rate, coupled with cultural practices for treatment of the dead and perhaps its emergence in an urban setting, caused the disease to spread rapidly, and thousands of people died. The international public health community responded with a large emergency effort to treat patients and contain the epidemic.

Ebola is not the only disease that needs to be monitored in the global environment. In 2015, WHO set priorities on several emerging diseases that had a high probability of causing epidemics and that were poorly understood (and thus urgently required research and development efforts). Emerging diseases are found in all countries, both developed and developing (Table 12.2).

A reemerging infectious disease is a disease that is increasing in frequency after a previous period of decline. Its reemergence may be a result of changing conditions or old prevention regimes that are no longer working. Examples of such diseases are drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, bacterial pneumonia, and malaria. Drug-resistant strains of the bacteria causing gonorrhea and syphilis are also becoming more widespread, raising concerns of untreatable infections.

Even before the Ebola epidemic of 2014–15, Ebola was considered an emerging disease because of several smaller outbreaks between the mid-1990s and 2000s.
Figure 12.14 Even before the Ebola epidemic of 2014–15, Ebola was considered an emerging disease because of several smaller outbreaks between the mid-1990s and 2000s.
Some Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Diseases



Year Discovered

Affected Regions






Contact with infected body fluids

Chikungunya fever

Chikungunya virus


Africa, Asia, India; spreading to Europe and the Americas


Ebola virus disease

Ebola virus


Central and Western Africa

Contact with infected body fluids


Influenza (swine flu)

H1N1 virus



Droplet transmission

Lyme disease

Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium


Northern hemisphere

From mammal reservoirs to humans by tick vectors

West Nile virus disease

West Nile virus


Africa, Australia, Canada to Venezuela, Europe, Middle East, Western Asia


Table 12.2

  • Explain why it is important to monitor emerging infectious diseases.
  • Explain how a bacterial disease could reemerge, even if it had previously been successfully treated and controlled.

  1. World Health Organization. “Programme Budget 2014–2015.” http://www.who.int/about/finances-accountability/budget/en.


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