By Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, The Huffington Post – 8 April 2013
As we commemorate World Health Day, we must commit to fighting disease and preventable illness. Singularly combating specific diseases will not lead to widespread access to healthcare or eradication of diseases like polio or tuberculosis. This is particularly true in developing countries due to complexities of the challenges involved.
Governments, international organizations and NGOs all over the world contribute to providing humanitarian aid -- particularly, medical assistance -- but in conflict areas there is an increasing problem of accessing the areas that are home to those most in need.
Countless other public and private initiatives to provide aid have helped, but until we work to eliminate poverty and provide societal stability and infrastructure, this aid will only accomplish so much.
For example, many of the health issues faced by women can be prevented by proper aid and access to medical care, but others like female genital mutilation which causes long term health issues for women have been institutionalized in the name of religion, tradition and culture.
When considering all of these elements, the global healthcare landscape becomes much more difficult to navigate. How do you deliver healthcare to those in need when cultural traditions may breed resistance to help, when impoverished areas may make prevention difficult, and when conflict may prevent access to the regions most in need? While the answer to this question may be difficult, it is even more difficult to address global health without these considerations.
Our approach must be both collaborative and comprehensive; tapping into an understanding of the medical issue but also of the cultural, political, religious and regional dynamics affecting those we are trying to help. Without all of the pieces, we will be unable to truly address any health issue with clear success.
In my work with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), I have seen many collaborative efforts with the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Global Polio Elimination Initiative (GPE) and others, which have worked to address a variety of global health issues. Yet many attempts at delivering aid are met with resistance. In the fight against polio, terrorism, cultural perceptions and poverty contribute to the perpetuation of the disease.
Polio aid workers seeking to vaccinate those at high risk for polio have been killed over the past few months in both Pakistan and Nigeria. Despite widespread attempts at educating the public about the safety and necessity of vaccinations, many traditional and religious leaders have stood (often violently) against vaccinations for fear of the physical or spiritual ramifications. Furthermore, many of the communities still suffering from polio do not have the social infrastructure to provide healthy living conditions or education about prevention. At the OIC Cairo Summit this year, Muslim leaders reaffirmed that Islam supports the wellbeing and health of all members of society and encouraged religious leaders and all members of civil society to stand with initiatives to eradicate polio. Additionally, Bill Gates and the Islamic Development Bank have created a five-year partnership to focus on combating disease and food insecurity. Their collaboration will pay specific attention to addressing polio in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The WHO, GPEI and the OIC among others have continued their fight to both vaccinate and educate; and even though the difficulties and dangers to aid workers persist, the GPEI and WHO have announced a five year, $5.5 billion dollar plan to eradicate polio. In fact, GPEI director Hamid Jafari stated, "We've never been so close to eradication as we are now."
With comprehensive solutions and collaboration as our guide, the OIC and USAID have formalized a partnership focused on coordination in training, education, dialogue and response. Recognizing that more than a third of the deaths from tuberculosis have occurred in OIC member states, we have reached out to not only governmental and civil society leaders in our member states but also the WHO and the Stop TB Partnership to allocate both resources and expertise in prevention education and treatment to eradicate tuberculosis. We have also developed a collaborative plan for a water secure future, as access to clean water, particularly in poverty-stricken regions, is crucial to combating any disease.
Furthermore, while speaking at the United Nations in February, the OIC Secretary General Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu stood with the United Nations against the atrocities of female genital mutilation saying, "Thankfully, there is a rising awareness across the Muslim world against this hazardous practice that endangers physical and psychological health of girls and women ... In this connection, I would like to welcome the UN General Assembly Third Committee on approving a draft resolution on November 26, 2012 which aimed at intensifying global effort to eliminate female genital mutilation, and take measures including legislation prohibiting the phenomenon to protect women and girls from that form of violence."
Every health issue that we address and every community that we strive to assist cannot be viewed unilaterally and cannot be considered from only one dimension. It is for this reason that the OIC has focused their efforts on health in a collaborative way that not only unites the resources and expertise of multiple organizations and countries but also unites with the regional forces and civil society of those in need. While we have much to offer, the people know themselves and know their communities much better than we ever will. It is only through this type of partnership between international powers and grassroots initiatives that true change in global health will be achieved.