Human Genetics programme

Genomics and the global health divide

Profound inequities exist in the health status and disease burden of populations in low-, middle- and high-income countries.

  • Global burden of disease: Low- to middle-income countries account for 85% of the world’s population and 92% of the global burden of disease. They lack proper health systems and infrastructure, biotechnological development, and financial resources to benefit from and contribute to the advances in health and medical research.
  • Health research: According to the Global Forum for Health Research, 90% of all health research expenditure is targeted at problems that affect only 10% of the world’s population.
  • Drug development: In many low-income countries, communicable diseases make up the greatest component of the total disease burden, and the management of communicable diseases signifies an important challenge for health systems. Yet, between 1975 and 1999, the pharmaceutical market produced only 15 (1%) new drugs for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, illnesses which account for 12% of the global burden of disease. The area of cardiovascular diseases, which account for 11% of the global burden of disease, received 179 (13%) new drugs in the past 25 years.

Genomics is no doubt affected by this global health imbalance and is currently experiencing a substantial divide that is impeding the progress of genetic sciences in low- to middle-income countries. Global inequalities in the availability, quality and use of genetic technologies, genomic research as well as provision of genomic services are widening due to a multitude of reasons. These often entail a scarcity of financial resources, lack of health services and infrastructure or simply the presence of more compelling health priorities as in the case of infectious diseases like TB and HIV/AIDS.

Genome related technologies can contribute to improving global health equity. To do so the genomic health divide must be kept in check and ultimately bridged through equitable economic investment, clinical research, and provision and use of genomic services and technologies globally. The exchange of existing information, expertise and technologies between the high income and low-income countries can speed up this process. The Human Genetics programme (HGN) provides WHO Member States with a clear understanding of the opportunities and challenges within genomics that are relevant to the achievement of their respective public health targets.