The Best Global Health Stories of 2019

Sunrise in Kigali, Rwanda. Image by Maxime Niyomwungeri/Unsplash
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Sunrise in Kigali, Rwanda. Image by Maxime Niyomwungeri on Unsplash

At GHN, we read thousands of stories every year. Some of them stick with us even after the headlines fade.

The best help us see what had been invisible, reveal a new perspective, and make us think.  

We closed out the year with a second look at some of the best, starting with a triumph in Rwanda. The last two stories stand out to us for keeping global health honest by giving credit where it should have gone and shaking up stubborn the colonial mentality standing in the way of progress.

—The Editors

How Rwanda Defied the Naysayers

In 2010, Rwanda became the first African country to launch a national cervical cancer prevention program, forging an agreement with Merck to vaccinate girls against the human papillomavirus virus.
Hurdles and doubts abounded: HPV is sexually transmitted—yet talking about sex is taboo in Rwanda. Rumors floated that the vaccine causes infertility. And even high-income countries like France and the US had only achieved moderate HPV vaccine coverage.
But Rwanda enlisted an army of educators—community health workers, nurses, teachers, and church leaders. Now 93% of Rwandan girls get the shot.
For a fascinating success story in the making, Sophie Cousins’ long read is also a must-read—one of many from the late Wellcome Trust publication, Mosaic (which we will miss dearly).

Sickened by Nationalism

The measles virus is essentially the same one that sickened kids a century ago—and an effective vaccine exists—so why is it surging across the planet now?

Maryn McKenna masterfully traced the fierce opposition to the measles vaccine to the rise in nationalist politics in her powerful piece in The New Republic last April. The same phenomenon has scuppered efforts to eradicate polio and stop Ebola outbreaks, she noted.
Amid the rejection of scientific expertise and suspicion of government agencies, “the assumption that every nation owes an investment in health to every other nation no longer holds,” McKenna writes.

Humans on the Streets of San Francisco

780 people are ahead of Manuel Rochin. He’s waiting for a spot in a San Francisco homeless shelter.
San Francisco Chronicle journalist met him on June 18 when the paper sent 3 dozen journalists to document 24 hours in the city’s surging homelessness problem.

Despite spending $300 million on homelessness each year, the city hasn’t found any effective solutions.
As rents soar, residents find the streets are their only living space. (The lucky ones live in RVs or vans, but they’re regularly chased away by police.)
The devastating feature offers indelible images of the human beings left behind by a prosperous city.

A Standout Series

In a sea of reporting on the US opioid crisis, Vox’s German Lopez—featured regularly in GHN—is a standout.
In his harrowing and intimate series “The Rehab Racket,” Lopez charts the turmoil of families who sacrifice everything every have—and then some—to save their loved ones from the grip of addiction.
They often fail anyway, after cycling through a rehab industry “that is largely unregulated, shockingly ineffective, and ruinously expensive.”
We featured the story of a Vermont family that spent over $110,000 on treatments that still couldn’t save their son.
This was Part I of the series. You really should read the whole set.

Forced Infertility: Forgotten But Not Gone

Ankita Rao’s raw reporting offers a rude awakening to anyone who thought forced sterilization of indigenous populations was a thing of the past in Canada. Far from being a shameful relic of colonization and 20th century eugenics, the “quiet genocide” that shrank indigenous families still lingers today.
Shockingly, Canada still has no outright ban on the practice. 100+ women in Saskatchewan have come forward saying it’s happened to them, and they’ve brought a class action lawsuit demanding reforms.
But perhaps their most important goal: “recognition of colonial and genocidal practices that never ended,” Rao writes in VICE.

Tragedy Out West

Beyond the high-profile suicides of men like Anthony Bourdain are ordinary men—like Toby Lingle—who mark an alarming escalation of suicide among white men in the American West.

White men make up 70% of suicides in America, and men ages 45-61 represent the fastest-growing cohort—dying amid a dangerous combination of despondency, poverty and ubiquitous firearms.
Many feel they have no one to talk to. But reporter Stephen Rodrick listened. He portrays people’s lives in moving detail in this piece for Rolling Stone.

“It’s easy to bash white middle-aged men in America… Yet the American white man is responsible for enough suicides annually that Madison Square Garden could not hold all the victims. And no matter how privileged, that’s somebody’s dad, someone’s friend, someone’s brother and someone’s husband,” Rodrick writes.

Restoring Credit to the Congolese

Jean-Jacques Muyembe could have stayed in Europe after earning his PhD.
Instead, the epidemiologist returned to DRC in 1976, where he discovered the new, fast-killing disease later named Ebola.
The rest is history—much of it contorted to fit a colonial mold, writing out Muyembe and handing most of the credit to white, Western men.

But that’s changing, thanks in part to Eydar Peralta’s profile of Muyembe in NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.

Muyembe is gaining accolades for his research underpinning the first effective treatment against Ebola. And he decided that all blood samples collected during the current epidemic will stay in Congo—correcting some of the unfairness pocking the global health research world.

10 Fixes for Global Health Consulting Malpractice

After an African colleague spoke of American “kids” with little-to-no experience “advising” her government on global health practices, McGill’s Madhukar Pai set out to address what he calls “global health consulting malpractice.”
“This problem ... is merely one facet of a larger issue of how global health, even today, is still colonial in many ways,” he says.
Now, he’s challenging the architecture of global health. In GHN’s most popular exclusive by far in 2019, he shared some crowdsourced fixes from a thread he posted on Twitter in August. Samples:

  • Discourage voluntourism. Global health courses must guide trainees and graduates on what they must NOT do when they go to LMICs—reinforcing the principle of “do no harm.” 
  • Consult LMIC ministries of health on what they need before offering technical assistance.
  • Build and support top-notch schools and institutions in LMICs.


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