We are facing a growing and menacing threat posed by pandemics. Recent years have witnessed SARS, bird flu, MERS, Ebola and now the Zika virus. With each new discovery, our response is bewilderingly clumsy, and we seem to be no more equipped to respond than before. In many ways, we tie our own noose. History is littered with examples of action performed too little, too late.

Increasing population density and transnational travel of people and commodities increase the risk of communicable disease. As the threat of pandemics is becoming more real, it is paramount to create robust systems at the international, national and local levels to cope with such outbreaks. A recent global health commission estimated the potential annual economic losses from pandemics to be $60bn. Despite this ominous threat, international efforts to mitigate the risks are woefully inadequate. Read more

In 1987, when I was five months pregnant with my youngest child Uchechi, doctors told me they were concerned that his head was not growing fast enough. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I couldn’t bear it, the sense of powerlessness in being able to do nothing but wait. It took two long months of fortnightly sonograms before we were finally given the all clear. Although Uchechi was fine in the end, the terrifying experience will remain with us forever.

Today, nearly three decades later, my heart goes out to the hundreds of thousands of pregnant women in Zika-infested countries who are going through the same agonising experience of not knowing the fate of their unborn child, or even worse those with confirmed cases of microcephaly. As world leaders, policymakers and young people come together in Copenhagen this week to discuss health, rights and well-being of women and girls as part of this year’s Women Deliver global conference, this epidemic is a reminder that a gender gap exists in health as well as education, economics and politics. Read more

Women and girls bear the brunt of the world’s disease burden because, in too many places, they don’t have the tools—or the rights—to protect their own health.

We know that healthy women and girls create measurably healthier and more productive communities. A recent analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that advancing gender equality could add $12tn to global GDP by 2025. That’s $12tn with a “t.”

When 10 per cent more girls are healthy enough to go to school, a country’s GDP increases by about 3 per cent. Healthy girls and women learn more, earn more, produce more, and raise healthier children. Read more

In 2009, Bassirou Bonfoh, director of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifique (CSRS) in Cote d’Ivoire joined forces with 10 other African institutions to collaborate on research into infections that pass between animals and humans, many of which are now sadly world famous including Ebola, HIV and Zika.

The collaboration enabled him to access data from as far afield as Tanzania and extend his remit to rift valley fever, an infection that has had several outbreaks since its first detection in 1931. Read more

It is incredible to think that just over a century ago, malaria stretched from the Arctic Circle to the southern tips of Africa and South America. Since then, half the world’s countries have eliminated the disease, most in the past 70 years. Countries where malaria remains are making astonishing progress. More than 30 countries, primarily in Latin America, Southern Africa and Asia-Pacific, are working to eliminate it by going from low to no malaria transmission. More than 20 of these countries are on track to end transmission of the disease entirely by 2020, paving the way for the global eradication of malaria within a generation.

The single greatest threat to achieving a malaria-free world is a reduction in funding or political support before the job is done. All too often, malaria programmes are victims of their own success. Malaria-related deaths and illnesses decline, the problem becomes invisible and resources are shifted elsewhere. History shows us that when governments or donors cut funding or close down malaria programmes too soon, the disease comes roaring back. Read more

The world is on the cusp of something unprecedented: the largest generation of young people in human history is approaching reproductive age.

Not only is this generation the biggest, it is likely to be the healthiest and most educated the world has ever seen. More have gone to school than in any previous generation. Most of them are vaccinated against the diseases that devastated the populations that came before them. As they have grown, more have benefited from the nutrients their bodies and minds need to develop to their fullest potential. No previous generation has ever been so well-equipped to expand the limits of human possibility. Read more

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Health Organization’s agency for the Americas, recently voted unanimously to adopt a Regional Plan of Action on Dementia. It obliges governments in every country in the region, in both North and South America, to take further action to help people living with dementia.

The plan comes at a much needed time, with 9.4m people living with dementia in the Americas. This number is expected to rise to nearly 30m by 2050. With the commitment of every country in the Americas, from the most southerly point of Argentina to the tip of Canada, the plan could go a long way to ensuring millions more people can live well with dementia at all points of their dementia journey. Read more

“Anyone who says that Africa is missing the Millennium Development Goals is missing the point.” You might expect such a tart statement about a canonical organising principle of development policy to come from one of the aid industry’s many curmudgeonly sceptics.

That it came instead from Jan Vandemoortele, a Belgian economist who helped create the United Nations MDGs in the first place, raises questions whether propagating a single set of targets to drive government policy across the entire developing and emerging world is worth doing at all. The “sustainable development goals”, successors to the MDGs, are currently being developed, but the unfortunate signs are that they will be yet more complex and yet less meaningful than the originals.

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Tough times ahead for Russian smokers and for the international tobacco groups that feed their obnoxious habit: a ban on smoking in government buildings introduced last year was expanded to include all public places at the weekend, as the Kremlin stepped up the war on Russia’s estimated 40m cigarette addicts. Read more

Many global trade disputes involve the US and other developed nations ticking off emerging market upstarts for their naughty, protectionist practices.

But Indonesia has hit out at American hypocrisy over its failure to adequately respond to a 2012 ruling that Washington had violated World Trade Organisation rules by banning the sale of (mostly Indonesia-made) clove cigarettes for health reasons while permitting the sale of (equally harmful, US-made) menthol cigarettes. Read more

Last week Ranbaxy Laboratories, India’s biggest pharmaceuticals company, must have thought it had at last settled an eight-year dispute when it paid $500m in fines and compensation and pleaded guilty to felony charges related to production and distribution of adulterated drugs in the US.

But it isn’t over yet. Daiichi Sankyo – the Tokyo based drugmaker that paid quite a premium for a controlling stake in Ranbaxy back in 2008 – has taken the row to a new front. Read more

A recent conference held by the China Medical Board, a US foundation, on China and the Global Burden of Disease identified smoking as the third greatest risk to health in the country, behind dietary risks and high blood pressure but ahead of China’s deadly environmental pollution about which so much has been written.

Asia is one of the last great global bastions of smoking, with China and Indonesia – the first and fourth most populous countries in the world – setting the regional lead. China alone is home to more than a third of the world’s smokers, puffing away at a rate of more than 2tn cigarettes a year. Read more

Amid the noisy clatter of mezze plates being laid down inside a west Beirut restaurant, a woman lights up a cigarette, periodically resting it in one of the ashtrays that are placed on each table.

Six months in, such violations of Lebanon’s smoking ban are becoming an increasingly common sight.

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In India, there are just nine hospital beds for every 10,000 people; 626m people are forced to defecate in the open for want of sanitary facilities; and local investors are looking abroad to escape unpredictable regulation and unreliable infrastructure at home.

And yet, when religion and revelry are at stake, this same country can pull it together and host the 55-day Maha Kumbh Mela festival, where 9m pilgrims are provided with all the shelter and services they need. Read more

Baijiu, the fiery Chinese liquor that has been around for thousands of years and is today a fast-growing multi-billion-dollar industry, has become the focus of China’s latest food and drink health scareRead more

Russia is finally getting tough on tobacco with a new law that will ban smoking in public places by January 1, 2015 and increase taxes on cigarettes by as much as eight times over the same period.

In a video blog released on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the government would go ahead with the measures despite complaints from foreign tobacco producers, who managed to carve out a niche in Russia at a time when European and US sales were plummeting. Read more

Actis, the emerging markets private equity fund, has invested $32m in Asiri Hospital Holdings, a private hospital chain in Sri Lanka with five hospitals under its umbrella.

Asiri will use the proceeds to buy out minority shareholders in some of those hospitals as it prepares for further expansion in the country. The deal again underlines Sri Lanka’s appeal to foreign investors, attracted by sustained GDP growth of 7 per cent a year against a backdrop of economic downturn in the west. Read more

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’s surprise admission on Monday evening that he has prostate cancer should not be a major scare for the country. The prognosis is good – he says that because it was discovered early, he has a 97 per cent chance of being totally cured. The treatment will take place this week and he will be able to “continue to exercise my functions as president”, albeit with some travel restrictions.

Aside from its own intrinsic importance, though, the news illuminates three other fascinating trends in the region. Read more

This Ramadan, Gulf residents received text messages with fasting tips to caution against overeating. The problem of expanding waistlines, however, is far from seasonal.

Kuwait, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain all figure on the list of the world’s top ten most obese nations. Seventy-seven per cent of Kuwaitis are overweight and 34 per cent are obese, putting the tiny country just behind the US, according to the latest research based on UN and World Health Organization data.

But as the obesity epidemic spread across the Persian Gulf, so too has another American phenomenon – the rise of the weight loss cottage industry. Read more

Emerging markets will nearly double their spending on medicine over the next five years from $194bn in 2011 to $345-375bn in 2016, say healthcare analysts at IMS Health in a report on Thursday.

The Global use of Medicines: Outlook through 2016, says the expected rise comes from a combination of increasing income levels, the increased affordability of medicines and the roll-out of government healthcare programmes for poorer patients. Read more