UNC Global Health Update

January 26, 2009
Myron Cohen

Myron Cohen

Myron S. Cohen, MD

Director, Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases

Happy Chinese New Year to all.

The 21st century has been dubbed “the China century.”  With a population of 1.3 billion, China is home to nearly 20 percent of the world’s population and is fast becoming a keystone of the global economy.  Over the past three decades, China has maintained an average annual economic growth rate of 9.8 percent, more than three times the world average.  China’s unprecedented economic and political rise has led to a host of challenges with potentially global implications:  environmental degradation, a widening income gap, increasing social instability and an overburdened and poorly coordinated healthcare infrastructure.

China is one of three key areas of development for UNC’s campus-wide global programs.  This past fall, 286 students enrolled in Chinese language courses, making it the largest language offering in the Department of Asian Studies.  More and more UNC undergraduate, graduate and professional students are going to China to study or conduct research.  The university now has alumni clubs in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

I spent the month of December in China, where I have worked with my wife, UNC Professor of Social Medicine Dr. Gail Henderson, since 1979.  She and I have been witness to China’s remarkable transformation, but we have also watched a country struggling to address the resurgence of STDs and the spread of HIV/AIDS, rising rates of childhood obesity due to an increasingly American diet and the health effects of widespread tobacco use, to name a few.

UNC has well-established and rapidly growing global health programs in China.  The Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases is working to amplify these existing programs and build new ones.

Dr. Henderson has recently been awarded a prestigious NIH award to strengthen social science research on HIV and STD prevention in China.  Partners in this work include the China Centers for Disease Control, Peoples University in Beijing, the National Center for STD Prevention and Control in Nanjing and the public health bureaus in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.  During last month’s China visit, Dr. Henderson selected eight pilot projects to be given seed money under her grant.  Of them, several will likely move forward.

I spent my time in China working with U.S. and Chinese students in UNC’s Fogarty and Doris Duke Programs.  These programs allow health science students from across the U.S. to compete for funds to spend a year in China conducting research under the supervision of UNC and Chinese faculty. We are currently supporting two medical students, two PhD students, and an infectious disease postdoctoral fellow.  Their projects, which focus on HIV, syphilis and HPV research, are highlighted on the IGHID web site.  I cannot emphasize enough the dedication, energy and creativity that these trainees bring to their work.  Two of the students (Joseph Tucker and Kate Muessig) have already won independent research support based on their success in China.

UNC’s most significant infectious disease projects focus on STDs and HIV in China and include not only research, but also treatment programs in collaboration with the China CDC.  The rising rates of HIV and STD infections in China should not be viewed as an isolated health issue, but rather a direct consequence of China’s rapid growth and modernization.  For example, HIV in China was previously transmitted primarily through injection drug use, but in recent years has become a sexually-driven epidemic.  Massive rural-to-urban migration, the explosive growth of internet-based networking and shifting cultural attitudes toward sex all contribute to the spread of the disease.  And given generally low rates of condom use and poor and inaccurate knowledge about HIV, the potential for a greatly expanded epidemic in the world’s most populous nation is a great cause for concern.

This university has strength in China, and not just in global health.  We hope to develop more long-term, high-impact collaborative research projects that involve students from different departments and schools and hire more faculty with research interests in China.  Ultimately, we would like to build critical mass to form a pan-university China Center to rival existing centers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Chicago and University of Michigan.  Our students, faculty, administration and alumni all recognize the importance of China, and we are prepared for success.