December 17, 2012 | The Editors

Fiscal cliff could affect health worldwide

Rachel Wilson is senior director for policy and advocacy at PATH.

When I pick up my newspaper these days, I see a familiar headline: economic disaster awaits the citizens of the United States unless urgent action is taken to get our fiscal house in order.

Like most people, my first instinct is to wonder what it might mean for me and my family. Will my taxes rise? Will my parents lose much-needed support and benefits? Will Congress and the Obama Administration ever come to agreement?

Because I work in global health, my next thoughts are about what enacting billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts could mean for people living in poverty around the world.

Four women and their young children sit on a bench in a health clinic.
Mothers and their children wait at a South African health clinic. Photo: PATH/Wendy Stone.

Foreign assistance is a very small part of the US budget—less than 1 percent of the total. But in times of economic hardship, that 1 percent can attract lots of attention due to the perception that aiding people abroad comes at the expense of helping Americans. So, as Congress negotiates a budget deal, there is concern among those of us in global health that foreign assistance may be cut disproportionately.

Consequences of cuts

According to a report from the Office of Management and Budget reported on the Kaiser Family Foundation website, if the automatic cuts take effect, global health funding through the US Agency for International Development and the State Department would decrease by $670 million, or 8.2 percent from 2012 levels.

These kinds of cuts would have very real consequences. According to the Foundation for AIDS Research and the Guttmacher Institute (which focuses on reproductive health), the result could be:

  • 276,500 fewer people receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS, potentially leading to 63,000 more AIDS-related deaths. And the important research to develop a vaccine for HIV/AIDS could be threatened, ultimately slowing our progress toward finding a cure.
  • 112,500 fewer HIV-positive pregnant women treated, resulting in 21,000 more infants potentially infected with HIV as they are born.
  • 2.2 million fewer insecticide-treated nets procured, leading to nearly 6,000 deaths due to malaria.
  • 1.3 million fewer vaccines delivered to children, resulting in 14,000 more deaths from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, and hepatitis B.
  • 2.6 million fewer women and couples getting contraceptive services and supplies.

Don’t just sit there

Seeing these numbers scares me—but they also make me want to take action. The United States has contributed to incredible gains in global health. Any retreat from our leadership would set us back in ways that are unimaginable.

What impact can one person have in a seemingly intractable political environment? Plenty. We elected our officials, and they know that we can replace them if we don’t like their leadership. Just as importantly, we can support those who are taking the steps we think are important. So, I am going to call the people who represent me and tell them what I think. Will you?

For more information

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