NH21 Weekly welcomes a new top-dog this week, as The World Health Organisation has appointed its first ever director-general from Africa, with the election of Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the former Ethiopian health minister. (1)
As a nationalized South African, this natural health practitioner might have felt compelled to write of the socio-political significance of such an appointment, and the pride that a continent might feel as one of its own reaches the highest echelons of global health affairs.
Yet, unlike FIFA, who waited 112 years to appoint its first female secretary-general in 2016 (2); WHO are already world leaders in that regard, having previously appointed director-general’s, both male and female, from Europe, Asia, North and South America.
Prior to his election as WHO’s next director-general, Dr Ghebreyesus served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ethiopia from 2012–2016, and as Minister of Health in Ethiopia from 2005–2012. He has also served as chair of the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; as chair of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership Board; and as co-chair of the Board of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. He will succeed Dr Margaret Chan, who has been WHO’s director-general since 1 January 2007.
NH21 quite likes WHO, which was established in 1946 with the stated goal of “building a better, healthier future for people all over the world.”
They also penned the famous and inspirational definition of Health as;
“A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
This is a wonderful description to which we can all aspire, yet, unfortunately, is extremely challenging to actualize because health is a multifaceted combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that fall into three distinct categories;
- Modifiable: within the capacity of individuals to effect i.e. diet and exercise.
- Non modifiable: beyond the capacity of individuals to effect i.e. genetics, heredity and physical trauma/injury.
- Partially modifiable: somewhere in-between i.e. environmental pollutants and municipal water supply.
Perfect health is beyond most people due to non-modifiable factors that cannot be controlled. Humans are born genetically predisposed to certain conditions, and inherit much of their parent’s physical, mental and emotional profile; knitted into the fabric of their DNA at conception and further influenced during the formative childhood years.
Partially modifiable factors are equally challenging. People may, for example, be aware of environmental pollutants yet cannot leave for greener pastures due to myriad personal and professional commitments. Even if a person does wish to relocate, much of the modern world is polluted and the global food chain makes avoiding chemical contaminants virtually impossible.
Logic then, determines that one might address, where possible, the modifiable factors that fall within the realms of individual control. Diet and lifestyle rank highly here, and, although they cannot guarantee an absence of disease, can go a long way towards preventing the onset of many different kinds, as well as managing the symptoms of those that do present.
We undoubtedly live in challenging times. Synthetic pollutants and environmental stressors seem to define the current age. People today struggle with health issues that previous generations could never have foreseen. Healthcare exists to offset these challenges and lessen their effects upon quality of life. In many ways this has been achieved; medical advances have eradicated many diseases and increased life expectancy across the world.
Yet as 19th and 20th century practice focused heavily on infectious agents such as bacteria, virus and parasites; the 21st century has brought in newer lifestyle-related conditions that medicine alone cannot effectively address. For example, according to current WHO figures;
- 1 in 7 adults, and 1 in 3 children, suffer with constipation.
- Over 17 million people die annually of cardiovascular disease; the number one cause of death globally.
- 350 million people are depressed; the leading cause of disability worldwide.
It is evident that western, orthodox, medical science by itself is unable to meet the needs of humanity with its stringent adherence to clinical practice; but there is hope!
WHO acknowledge that, “diet and lifestyle changes are recommended as the first treatment for constipation”, whilst also noting, “most CVDs can be prevented by addressing behavioral risk factors such as unhealthy diet, obesity and physical inactivity”, and that protocols for treating depression require, “prevention programmes that enhance a pattern of positive thinking”.
COMPLEMENT – “to complete, or make perfect.”
Natural healthcare practices are commonly grouped under the acronym CAM or Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It is often thought that such conventions are distinct and separate from clinical medical practice, and that a person might choose one over the other when addressing their health concerns.
Yet many modern-day natural health practitioners prefer the term Complementary and Natural Healthcare, believing CNH and orthodox western medicine to be mutually symbiotic rather than separate or ‘alternative’ entities. There are many instances where clinical diagnosis and pharmaceutical-grade interventions are required to safeguard personal health.
However, it is known that allopathic medication comes with a variety of detrimental side effects, and that treating the symptoms of ill-health without addressing their underlying cause can encourage relatively minor ailments to develop into more chronic conditions.
The body has the capacity to heal itself if given the right conditions in which to do so. Most people have viruses, bacteria, parasites and pre-cancerous cells circulating throughout their bloodstream at any given time, yet do not show symptoms of ill health because these pathogens have been neutralised, destroyed and eliminated by the body’s own immune system.
The cornerstone of natural healthcare is supporting the body’s innate ability to protect and heal itself. Traditional methods used in natural health encourage this biological phenomenon through non-invasive techniques such as fasting, dietary modification, exercise, hydrotherapy, body-mind interaction, massage and simple sunshine.
It almost sounds too easy; yet comes with the caveat that each individual must take an active role in maintaining their own health through the daily application of a health promoting lifestyle. For many, such personal accountability, and the notion that they may have, at least partly, encouraged their own ill health, is a bitter pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, orthodox medicine severely underestimates the body’s capacity to heal, and rarely subscribes to the idea of wholism (body, mind and emotions) or to the importance of preventative interventions. Complementary and natural healthcare practices are frequently slandered as ‘quackery’ and ‘pseudo-scientific’, when in fact there are a great number of reputable organizations undertaking rigorous research on a range of therapeutic procedures.
Many eastern cultures pay their doctors only when they are healthy, and cease payment if they become sick; encouraging a ‘health system’ rather than an ‘ill health system’. The arrangement in western society today guarantees payment, through third party insurance companies, for the medical care people receive in health crises. It is less likely to reimburse patients or doctors for services rendered in promoting health.
The present system rewards those who can substantiate the performance of isolated synthetic drugs which can be patented. Research into combined approaches or utilizing a healthy diet, positive lifestyle choices and nutritional supplements garner far less interest because it is not possible to patent naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, or exercise and lifestyle modifications; so there is little economic motivation for healthcare companies to get involved.
Rather, modern medicine moves to greater degrees of high-tech procedures; the direction is toward specialization and away from the generalist concept of preventative medicine. Orthodox medicine should not give up what it does best, that is, treat disease. It might however recognize that by concentrating some energy on initiatives that help people to stay healthy, it can better use its resources in crisis management and the treatment of disease.
GOOD LUCK, YOU’LL NEED IT
Dr Ghebreyesus’ top five priorities in his new job are:
- Advancing universal health coverage.
- Ensuring WHO responds rapidly and effectively to disease outbreaks and emergencies.
- Putting the wellbeing of women, children and adolescents at the centre of global health and development.
- Helping nations address the effects of climate change on health.
- Making the agency transparent and accountable.
These of course, will require much administrative work on global health policy, and may seem far grander than the relatively minor work of dealing with individual aches and pains. Yet as the proverbial pyramid system shows, the precious resources and expertise required to address macroeconomic health issues will only become available as the burden of daily care is removed, or at eat reduced, by changes in general practice, and by encouraging people that do have the privilege of choice to take better of themselves through dietary and lifestyle modifications; which is very much the work of CNH practitioners.
Like France’s new gender-balanced cabinet (3), there is hope for a new-wave of progressive thinkers to tackle complex global issues in broad-based, holistic ways; and a willingness to move past the dogma and status quo of things that existed before.
The time is right for clinical and complementary practices to combine their efforts; enabling valuable medical resources to be available to all who need crisis care; whilst implementing health enhancement programmes that offer both prophylactic (preventative) and restorative (therapeutic) therapies aimed at decreasing the opportunities for sickness to occur, and supporting the process of recovery after an episode of ill-health.
NH21 welcomes the appointment of Africa’s own Dr Ghebreyesus, and will keep a keen eye on events as they unfold under his watch.