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Health Diplomacy Is Critical to U.S. Foreign Policy

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Members of the 112th Congress began their work with no shortage of urgent foreign policy issues. Among them are ongoing war, increased tensions with Iran and North Korea, and escalating threats of terrorism. As policymakers address these issues, I encourage them to consider the vital role of health diplomacy in protecting and advancing our country, its citizens and its economy.

Health diplomacy means winning the hearts and minds of those abroad by strategically exporting medical care and humanitarian aid, building in-country capacity, and providing health education, training and personnel. Health diplomacy encompasses a range of services, such as delivering life-saving AIDS medications in remote African and Caribbean villages; delivering emergency health care, medications and medical supplies in Haiti, Indonesia and Pakistan following devastating natural disasters; providing polio vaccinations for children in India; partnering with medical researchers in Ireland and Brazil; and working with influenza epidemiologists in China.

During my tenure as the Secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services, I witnessed first-hand how health diplomacy works. Perhaps the most powerful example of health diplomacy is the President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Created in 2003, PEPFAR remains the largest health initiative by any one nation to combat a single disease. The enormously successful program is a model for health and foreign assistance because it incorporates these fundamental elements: accountability, measurable goals, public-private partnerships, and in-country ownership to deliver services.

Health diplomacy recognizes that the health and security of our own citizens is tied directly to that of our neighbors around the world. Through the bond of health care, this strategy builds strong, lasting relationships -- relationships that secure our nation's future and build a strong, stable global community.

The link between political unrest and poor health is well established. Studies show that nations with the highest mortality rates for infants and children under age five are those most likely to engage in war. Terrorist groups use this link to their advantage by targeting the health care infrastructure as a means to delegitimize governments. Some terrorist groups also provide health care services to local communities, thus earning the support and loyalty of the population.

Research also clearly links health and the economy. Ill children don't receive the education they need to contribute to a strong future economy. Sick adults can't work and cannot care for their children. Crops aren't grown, goods aren't produced, families and communities break down.

The connection between health, security and economic success has gained traction among global health policy stakeholders. I urge the 112th Congress to build on this momentum. Health diplomacy must be institutionalized as a critical component of U.S. diplomatic, defense and foreign policy. Global health is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. It's not even exclusively an American issue. It is the moral responsibility and strategic concern of every freedom-loving citizen of the world.