Surgical elephant in the global room

I was once hospitalised with malaria after falling asleep 20 foot up a tree, as we all do from time to time right? …. No?… Just me. Ok. At the time, I was working with kids in Zambia whose lives and families had been devastated by the effects of HIV/AIDS. After returning to London I spent 8 months working with Infectious Diseases teams, and now just yards from the operating theatres where I currently work they treat wards full of patients with destructive diseases like drug resistant tuberculosis. The news regularly features alarming stories of the most recent outbreak of yet another potentially lethal transmissible illness.

Infectious diseases are a big deal.

So if I were to warn you of a ‘Global Public Health Crisis!’ I wonder what things would pop into your head?
Ebola? Malaria? HIV?

It is generally well known that these infections cause terrible devastation and loss of life around the world. Thankfully enormous resources have been poured into international public health initiatives to help prevent and treat them in recent years. The recent ebola crisis (photo above courtesy of MSF website) was partly responsible for my decision to take time out of NHS training to volunteer overseas.

What is less well known, is that far more people around the world die from a lack of safe surgical care than from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

So hands up if lack of access to safe surgery and anaesthesia was in your ‘global crisis’ list? It wouldn’t have been in mine either until recently, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Global fatalities in 2010:

  • HIV/AIDS        1.46 million
  • Tuberculosis   1.2 million
  • Malaria            1.17 million
  • Lack of access to surgery  18.6 million

All in all, around 5 billion of the world’s population do not have access to safe and affordable surgical and anaesthesia care when needed. More on that another time, but you can read the details in the Lancet 2015 Commission on Global Surgery here.

Catching malaria may not be something you can relate to.

However if you remember the last time that you (or someone close to you) needed surgery, just imagine what might have happened without it. Problems such as obstructed labour, broken limbs, appendicitis, a hernia are all treatable but could turn into potential catastrophes with high rates of fatality in the absence of safe surgical care.

This is why Mercy Ships not only bring the staff and facilities to provide life-changing surgery to those who need but can’t access it, they also work hard to build the capacity of local health care teams for the long term.

This is why the Mercy Ships team I join in 3 weeks will be partnering with Lifebox, who since they were founded 4 years ago have improved standards for more than 10 million patients in 90 countries through distribution of essential safety equipment and the volunteer-led training of over 3000 anaesthesia providers. We plan to do the same all across Madagascar.

This is why universal access to safer surgery is a vision worth supporting.

2 thoughts on “Surgical elephant in the global room

  1. Janet Grime

    I was surprised about the stats in relation to deaths from lack of safe surgical care. Perversely the success in preventing infectious diseases in under fives must be reflected in the stats. More survive childhood to go onto become adults and increase the numbers potentially needing surgery later on in life. I remember in the 1970s, public health experts being very concerned about the adoption of the developed world’s model of curative health care i.e. one centred on hospitals, rather than primary care with its emphasis on prevention. Out of this concern came the Ottowa Convention and WHO’s ‘Health for all by the Year 2000,’ which focused on public health and preventive medicine. The need for the latter will be just as intense today but impoverished Third World Countries now also need, somehow, to provide curative care, including surgery. Thank goodness for Mercy Ships and Life Box and Linden.
    Best wishes



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s