On September 26, Dr. Albert Ko kicked off PHC’s lunch series for the year with a talk on the global expansion of urban slums and the public health challenges this expansion represents. Dr. Ko is a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, where he is department chair of the Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases division, and also a professor and infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Medicine.
Dr. Ko’s research interests focus on the unique challenges and inequities arising in health as a result of rapid urbanization. According to the United Nations 2013 World Economic and Social Survey, more than a billion people around the world currently live in urban slums without access to basic services such as sanitation, electricity, and healthcare. This number is projected to grow to 3 billion in the face of continuing urbanization and population shifts.
Dr. Ko outlined how even though urban living can offer a comparative health advantage over rural areas in terms of access to certain health services and economic opportunities, this rapid urbanization presents challenging and dynamic threats to public health. Urbanization, Dr. Ko explained, concentrates human populations in dense agglomerations often lacking basic health infrastructure. In such highly concentrated conditions, the monitoring and prevention of infectious disease outbreaks becomes increasingly challenging. Furthermore, poor sanitation services in urban slums often place human populations in increased and prolonged contact with rodent and other animal populations, increasing the risk for vector-borne or zoonotic emerging infectious disease. Factors such as climate, urban ecology, and social marginalization can further shape the epidemiology of diseases of poverty in urban slums.
Dr. Ko explained that the expanding health challenges presented by the urbanization of the global poor will require interventions based more strongly on principles of health equity and social justice in medicine. Designing such interventions will need to draw upon the expertise and participation of a broad range of stakeholders, including both civil society and governmental players working together in sustainable and responsible ways. Dr. Ko highlighted several of Yale’s international partnerships through the Global Health Justice Program, a joint venture between the Yale Law School and School of Public Health, as areas where Yale students and faculty are actively leading this dialogue. Dr. Ko encouraged students interested in public health to consider their future academic and professional opportunities not only in terms of career trajectory but also in terms of their larger vocation and public service responsibility.