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Susan Blumenthal, M.D. Headshot

Exploring Global Health Through the Power of Film

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The power of cinema can educate and activate people to respond to health problems we face in the United States and around the world. The recent Discovery Channel/American Film Institute SILVERDOCS Rx film festival held in Silver Spring, Maryland did just that by shining a spotlight on significant global health concerns, serving as a catalyst for public discussion and social change. As the Medical Director of this innovative DOCS Rx program, I had the privilege of viewing inspiring, revealing and thought-provoking documentary movies from around the world on international health problems as different as water contamination in Bangladesh and India, Alzheimer's disease in Canada, childhood leukemia in Lithuania, tuberculosis in Afghanistan, paraplegia in Chile, HIV/AIDS in China, and breast cancer and multiple sclerosis in the United States. National health experts, many from Washington DC area organizations including the National Institutes of Health, the National Rehabilitation Hospital, the Global Health Council, George Washington University, and the Children's National Medical Center, served as panelists to explore the issues raised by the documentaries and challenged audiences to take action.

The films illuminated that nations today face a double jeopardy from both infectious and chronic diseases that have tremendous humanitarian, economic, and national security implications. Annually, one in four deaths worldwide are due to infectious illnesses: three million people die of AIDS, two million from tuberculosis, and one million each die of malaria and measles. Furthermore, since 1972, more than 32 new illnesses such as AIDS, Lyme's disease, SARS, West Nile virus, and H5N1 avian influenza have appeared. Chronic diseases including heart and lung disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer's are major killers and negatively impact the quality of life for people around the world. A staggering one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and millions experience hunger everyday. In an interconnected global society - 2 million people cross national borders every day - the spread of an infectious illness like avian flu, the safety of our food and water supply, the impact of tobacco and obesity-related diseases, and the threat of bioterrorism do not respect national boundaries.

The good news is that solutions cross national borders too. Prevention and public health preparedness are cornerstones to improving global health and decreasing health care costs. For example, simple, affordable interventions - vaccines, antibiotics, vitamins, safe birthing kits, rehydration solutions, and mosquito bed nets - are available to prevent over 80 percent of the 10 million children's deaths that occur annually worldwide if we committed the political will and resources to deliver them. Tobacco and obesity prevention, providing access to lifesaving medications, combating hunger, and ensuring safe drinking water would also save millions of lives.

The SILVERDOCS Rx film festival served as a call to action to improve global health. We are the first generation that has the scientific, technological, and public health advances to look health disparities and preventable diseases in the eye and put an end to needless suffering worldwide. It's the moonshot of our time. Furthermore, leadership, education, and investments in global health are powerful currencies for peace. After all, our common quest for good health cuts across countries, cultures, language, and politics. So let's join forces between communities, governments and the private sector to ensure a healthier future for all in the 21st century.