Data on life expectancy show many countries clustered in high mortality ‘traps’

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Growing recognition of the importance of health as a contributing factor to economic development and societal change has prompted the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to add a new subsection on sustainable health to its existing section on sustainable Development.

The inaugural subsection, posted online Oct. 3, includes an editorial by Barry R. Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), describing this new dimension of the sustainable science field and summarizing the special section’s four articles, among them “Mortality Traps and the Dynamics of Health Transitions,” in which David E. Bloom and David Canning, from the Department of Population and International Health at HSPH, analyze global life expectancy data to show that most countries are clustered in high or low mortality groupings with little continuum of change between them. 

The traditional view of health in the context of economic development sees robust macroeconomic performance leading to improvements in health. But that paradigm has broadened in recent years to include the view that “health is also a significant contributing determinant of economic and social development,” writes Barry Bloom.

The new challenge for the international community, he continues, “goes beyond how to contribute to pilot programs in health that provide drugs, vaccines, and preventive or health care services” to how to do so in a way that engages the local and national populations and enables the programs to expand to a nationwide scale that is sustainable over time.

All four papers in the special series, writes Barry Bloom, “emphasize the importance of multisectoral approaches to providing sustainable solutions to complex health problems in developing countries — public health, medicine, engineering, education, and community engagement.”