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UK’s greatest health threats will come from abroad, England’s top doctor warns

Sarah Newey
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer - PA Archive

England’s top doctor has warned that the UK will fail to protect its population against a rising tide of global health threats if it does not invest in and adopt an international outlook. 

In her final report as England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies said a collaborative approach is needed to tackle global health challenges as “diseases do not recognise borders.” 

She warned that Britain and its allies must enhance their health security and invest in systems to tackle disease outbreaks, such as Ebola and ‘disease x’, before they go global. 

“A threat in one corner of the world is a threat to anywhere else,” Professor Dame Sally told The Telegraph. “We are only as strong as our weakest link when it comes to health.

“You only have to look at how infectious diseases can spread to understand that if [governments] are not able to cope in their own country, we will see them move across the world.

“For security in these countries and here at home, we should invest in those health systems in order to protect everyone. We are globally interconnected, if we do not attend to our global linkage we put ourselves at risk".

Professor Dame Sally – who is set to leave her post and become the first female Master of Trinity College Cambridge later this year – has long highlighted the importance of an international approach to health. But this is the first time she has dedicated her annual review to the topic. 

Challenges outside the traditional health sphere – including pollution, health misinformation and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – also require closer collaboration with other countries and multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organization, she said. 

While “proud” of the UK’s health leadership, Professor Dame Sally outlined several recommendations for change, warning that “the world is changing, and we must respond.” 

In the last five years the proportion of official development assistance spent by the Department for International Development (Dfid) has shrunk. And Professor Dame Sally warns this could lead to a less coherent and effective approach unless clear targets are set. 

“Dfid does an amazing job,” she said. “But what we’ve started to do more over the last few years is spend UK aid from other departments. They do a decent job… but we need to have a shared global health strategy with shared objectives that go through a number of government departments for investments to be enduring.” 

The report also outlines recommendations to ensure the visa system becomes one that is “quick, smooth and affordable” for people applying to study in the UK from low and middle income countries.

This would vital promote knowledge sharing across borders which would benefit both the NHS and other countries, the Chief Medical Officer wrote. 

“Across centuries, controlling infectious diseases has continued to bring countries together,” said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School. “Ultimately outbreaks are about humans – regardless of nationality, religion or skin colour – versus microbes, and the only way to defeat them is to work together. 

“Dame Sally Davies’ annual report is a powerful reminder of the major health challenges the UK continues to face, and the importance of UK investment in the larger global health system which all countries, rich or poor, depend on,” he added. 

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