What are the greatest global health threats?

ebola un

WHO/Chris Black A nurse comforts a patient who has been diagnosed to have the Ebola virus.

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • The WHO released the top 10 global healthcare challenges in the coming decade.
  • Global warming, conflict zones and unfair healthcare provision are among the main obstacles.
  • Many healthcare challenges are interconnected and will require a coordinated international effort to overcome.
  • Experts are concerned governments around the world are failing to invest sufficient funds in overcoming these issues.

The world can’t afford to do nothing – that’s the World Health Organization’s message on the release of its report listing the most urgent health challenges for the coming decade.

All of the health challenges on the WHO list are urgent – and many are linked. And each challenge requires a coordinated effort from the global health sector, policymakers, international agencies and communities, the organization says. However, there is concern global leaders are failing to invest enough resources in core health priorities and systems.

The most urgent global health challenges for 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
Image: World Economic Forum

These are the main challenges on the list.

1. Elevating health in the climate debate

The climate crisis poses one of the biggest threats to both the planet and the health of the people who live on it.

Emissions kill around 7 million people each year, and are responsible for more than a quarter of deaths from diseases including heart attacks, stroke and lung cancer.

At the same time, more – and more intense – extreme weather events like drought and floods increase malnutrition rates and help spread infectious diseases like malaria.

2. Delivering health in conflict and crisis

The already difficult task of containing disease outbreaks is made more challenging in countries rife with conflict.

Nearly 1,000 attacks on healthcare workers and medical facilities in 11 countries were recorded in 2019, leaving 193 medical staff dead. Despite stricter surveillance, many healthcare workers remain vulnerable.

For the tens of millions of people forced to flee their homes, there is often little or no access to healthcare.

3. Making healthcare fairer

The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing, especially in terms of access to healthcare.

People in wealthy nations can expect to live 18 years longer than their poorer neighbours, and wealth can determine access to healthcare within countries and individual cities, as well.

Rising global rates of diseases like cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions have a greater impact on low- and middle-income countries, where medical bills can quickly deplete the limited resources of poorer families.

4. Expanding access to medicines

Although many in the world take access to medication for granted, medicines and vaccines are not an option for almost one-third of the global population.

The challenge of expanding access to medicines in areas where few, if any, healthcare products are available includes combatting substandard and imitation medical products. In addition to putting lives at risk by failing to treat the patient’s condition, these products can undermine confidence in medicines and healthcare providers.

5. Stopping infectious diseases

Infectious diseases continue to kill millions of people, most of them poor. This picture looks unlikely to change in the near future.

Preventing the spread of diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria depends on sufficient levels of funding and robust healthcare systems. But in some areas where they are most needed, these resources are in short supply.

Greater funding and political will is required to develop immunization programmes, share data on disease outbreaks and reduce the effects of drug resistance.

6. Preparing for epidemics

Airborne viruses or diseases transferred by mosquito bite can spread quickly, with potentially devastating consequences.

Currently, more time and resources are spent reacting to a new strain of influenza or an outbreak of yellow fever, rather than preparing for future outbreaks. But it’s not a question of if a dangerous virus will come about – but when.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.

7. Protecting people from dangerous products

Many poorer parts of the world face malnutrition and food insecurity, while at the same time, global obesity levels and diet-related problems are on the rise.

We need to rethink what we eat, reduce the consumption of food and drinks high in sugar, salt and harmful fats, and promote healthy, sustainable diets. To this end, the WHO is working with countries to develop policies that reduce our reliance on harmful foodstuffs.

8. Investing in the people who defend our health

Health workers are in short supply the world over. Sustainable health and social care systems depend on well-paid and properly trained staff who can deliver quality care. WHO research predicts that by 2030, there will be a shortfall of 18 million health workers, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

New investment is needed to properly train health workers and provide decent salaries for people in the profession, it says.

9. Keeping adolescents safe

Every year, more than 1 million adolescents – aged between 10 and 19 – die. The main causes include road accidents, suicides, domestic violence and diseases like HIV or lower respiratory conditions. But many of these premature deaths are preventable.

Policymakers, educators and health practitioners need to promote positive mental health among adolescents, to prevent illicit drug use, alcohol abuse and self harm. Programmes that raise awareness of things like contraception, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy care help address some of the underlying causes of adolescent fatalities.

10. Earning public trust

Delivering safe, reliable healthcare to patients involves first gaining their confidence and trust; a trust which can be undermined by the rapid spread of misinformation on social media. For example, the anti-vaccination movement has led to an increase in deaths from preventable diseases.

But social media can also be used to spread reliable information and build public trust in healthcare. Community programmes are another way to boost confidence in healthcare provision and practices that prevent the spread of diseases, such as vaccinations or condom use.

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