BOULDER – Health issues have become globalized in the 21st Century, allowing both problems and solutions to move beyond borders and impact the health of populations and economies as well, according to Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
Sebelius gave the keynote address Monday at the Conference of World Affairs, held at the University of Colorado at Boulder this week.
There are three "realities of globalization" that prove that health in America is no longer influenced only by factors within the country's borders, Sebelius said.
The first is that outbreaks have the potential to impact everyone on the planet, regardless of where the outbreak takes places, according to Sebelius.
"In this 21st Century world we're no longer separated by two oceans," she said.
Americans are connected to the rest of the world's health by food, water and air, Sebelius said. For example, 50 percent of the fruit sold in major American grocery stores is grown in other countries and imported.
This means that the average apple that a person buys from the grocery store has an equal chance of being from New Zealand as it does from the United States, and the health of the population in New Zealand is suddenly a much more personal concern to the American consumer.
"Our health is intimately connected to others around the world," Sebelius said.
For this reason, agencies such as the World Health Organization and other global health advocates need to invest resources to keep outbreaks in one part of the world from turning into pandemics that span multiple continents.
The next reality of health globalization is that advancements made by anyone are beneficial to everyone, she said.
Countries import and export all types of products among each other, but in the age of technology, goods and services are not the only assets being traded.
Ideas and innovations, too, are moving between borders to expand knowledge and access to care, especially concerning those health problems that are universally dangerous and difficult to treat, such as AIDS and cancer.
Women's health is another area of common concern worldwide, and the world's health community has made strides, but there is still progress that needs to be made, Sebelius said. Across the globe, about 500,000 women die per year as a result of birth complications, she said.
According to Sebelius, the third reality of globalization is that healthy people equal healthy economies, and Americans are good at spreading both good and bad health habits to other parts of the world
Non-communicable diseases, or problems such as tobacco use and obesity, are spreading from the United States to other countries at a fast pace, Sebelius said, including undeveloped countries.
In those undeveloped countries, such problems as obesity are an even bigger concern than they are in America, because health care systems are already more burdened with other sicknesses and a patient dealing with obesity is likely to be less equipped to deal with the financial burdens associated with obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.
Tobacco use is on the decline, Sebelius said, but it is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death, decades after it was glamorized by Hollywood and even advertised as a healthy habit by some physicians in the 1960s.