Putting Public Health on the Map

Since its start in the 1990s, the Global Burden of Disease project has helped inform many policy debates and spurred action to improve health. But it could do much more if it were able to provide more detailed breakdowns of data.

SEATTLE – Twenty-five years ago, the state of public health for large populations was like that of a doctor trying to treat a patient without a proper diagnosis. The diseases and injuries that cut lives short and caused widespread suffering were not rigorously tracked.

Back then, well-meaning advocates for different diseases published death tolls that helped them make the case for funding and attention. But when all the claims were added up, the total was many times greater than the number of people who actually died in a given year. And even when policymakers had accurate data, it usually included only causes of death, not the illnesses that afflicted the living.

To address this problem, Alan Lopez and I launched the Global Burden of Disease project (GBD) in 1990. Decision-makers need information about the world’s biggest health threats and how they have changed over time, across age groups, and by sex, so they can ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live the longest, healthiest life possible.

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