The best way to be healthy is to not be poor.
That was one of the messages delivered by Dr. Hans Rosling Thursday night as keynote speaker for the annual fund-raising gala held by the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (which now also wants to be called “Seattle Biomed”). Another way to put Rosling’s message is that a good way to avoid poverty is to be healthy.
Confused? Irritated at the circular logic? That’s the point. If the message sounds a bit glib, that’s because it’s hard to put Rosling’s messages into words. If you haven’t been to www.gapminder.org, go there first. Nothing I say about him will be quite as compelling as watching one his organization’s animated displays of statistical trends.
Rosling makes statistics about death, illness and poverty entertaining. That also sounds glib, I know, but Rosling is both amusing and deadly serious. He’s a Swedish physician who for decades worked on outbreaks in Africa, discovered a rare disease (called “konzo”) and lately has focused much of his attention on how poverty and disease fuel each other. He’s usually hilarious and, it should be mentioned, a sword swallower.
His organization, Gapminder Foundation, transforms complicated data – usually about health and socioeconomics – into animated graphical displays that describe change over time.
At Seattle Biomed’s event, Rosling demonstrated visually that population growth declines as child deaths decline in poor countries – both of which also contribute to economic improvement. This, he noted, contradicts those who want to believe poverty and disease in poor countries helps keep population growth down. Quite the contrary: Birth rates are high in countries with high child mortality and low income because children are viewed as the family’s labor pool and a form of social security. It’s a hard case to make in words, but convincing when seen visually.
Rosling also said, and showed, that it is becoming meaningless to try to categorize countries as “developing” based on any one set of statistics. Some countries with low per capita income today come close to rich nations in certain health indicators, he said, and rich countries can have negative health trends.
But what was perhaps his most important point, in speaking to an audience of people invited to donate to Seattle Biomed’s work on malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and less-celebrated diseases such as trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”), is that health cannot be seen in isolation. Education, good governance, basic services like roads or safe water and economic freedoms are just as necessary for health, Rosling said, as vaccines and drugs.