The Untold Global Health Stories of 2016

photo of Keith Martin, executive director of CUGH, Desiré Tshala-Katumbay, and Brian W. Simpson

By Dayna Kerecman Myers

After reviewing more than 180 compelling entries for the 2016 Untold Global Health Stories Contest, Global Health NOW from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, NPR’s Goats and Soda blog, and the Consortium of Universities for Global Health have chosen the Untold Story of 2016. 

In fact, in the end, we could not choose just one. We selected a grand-prize winner and a first-prize winner. NPR’s Goats and Soda and GHN will each cover one of the winning stories.

The grand prize untold story is Infection-related cancers in the developing world, which was nominated by Susan Keown, a science writer from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“Up to 60% of cancers in the developing world are caused by or associated with infections, a ratio not seen in developed countries. For example: Burkitt lymphoma, rare in the US, is caused by Epstein-Barr virus and is associated with malaria—though it's not understood how—and is the number one cause of cancer deaths in kids in sub-Saharan Africa,” Keown wrote. It’s a major research focus at her institution, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center , which is working to develop new vaccines for cancer-causing infections, exploring the role of HIV in cancer and developing news ways to diagnose, predict, prevent and treat cancer in places like Kampala, Uganda.

Her entry also spoke to us because of a compelling, eye-opening fact she shared: more people in low- and middle-income countries die of cancer than malaria, HIV & TB combined.

A journalist from NPR’s Goats and Soda blog will cover this story.


The first-prize winner is for a story about the paralytic disease konzo, submitted by Desiré Tshala-Katumbay, of Oregon Health & Science University, who has worked extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Yaka, a Congolese language, konzo means "tied legs"—describing the strained gait of people afflicted with the disease, caused by consuming insufficiently processed cassava, which naturally contains cyanide.

“More than 600 million around the tropics rely on cassava [yucca] as the main source of food. [Yet] insufficiently processed cassava results in outbreaks of konzo, an irreversible paralysis of the legs, often and sadly mistaken for polio, in thousands of children and women of childbearing age,” Tshala-Katumbay wrote.

There’s another critical dimension to the illness: cognitive deficits among children living in areas affected by konzo areas also present with cognitive deficits, suggesting that the paralysis is just the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ he wrote. Tshala-Katumbay is working with with the Congo National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) on a capacity-building program involving peer-to-peer (mother-to-mother) training on cassava processing to alleviate the burden of konzo.

Another reason this entry stood out is the connection between konzo and climate change. Cassava’s drought-tolerance makes it a favored food during food shortages; konzo epidemics tend to occur during these times and reliance on this food, known as the “drought, war, and famine crop of the developing world,”  looks likely to grow. While Tshala-Katumbay’s research has focused heavily on Congo, he noted other outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa that are overlooked as well, including Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, Uganda, Central African Republic, Cameroun, and Zambia.

GHN has dived into plans to send a journalist to report firsthand on the issue in Africa, and we look forward to launching a series in the fall, just as we did for mycetoma, the winner of the 2015 Untold Global Health Story. We’ll be doing more updates on mycetoma in the coming weeks as well, ahead of the World Health Assembly May 23-28, which we hope will culminate in a decision to include mycetoma on the WHO’s official list of neglected diseases.

GHN, NPR’s Goats and Soda blog, and CUGH also recognized 10 honorable mentions in the 2016 Untold Stories contest, which we’ll announce in tomorrow’s GHN. Look for exclusive GHN commentaries and stories about these and other issues over the next year, until we gear up for the 2017 contest. We are deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to submit a story idea; your entries all deserve more attention and we hope that you’ll continue to stay in touch and view GHN as a convening forum and platform to help give more of a voice to everyone trying to bring more attention to untold global health stories.

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