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How many interconnections?

Global interconnections reach all parts of our lives, and that includes our Christmas festivities.

In the UK, we collectively sat down to consume several million turkeys this yuletide, so it is a sobering thought that most of the new diseases that have emerged in humans over recent decades have been transmitted to us by animals. What’s more, a recent FAO report links the emergence of diseases such as HIV, SARS and new influenza viruses, with the human quest for meat, including how we farm to feed ever growing human populations.

The report highlights yet another way in which we are linked, not only to each other, but also to all life on the planet. Reading through, it also reinforced for me a key theme for our work at Think Global at the moment – the way in which numeracy is ‘an important tool or “language” in constructing, explaining and interpreting the globalized world’ (Schell-Straub, 2011:10).

Many of the questions that came to mind as I was reading the report can be answered in numerical terms:

  • How many new diseases have emerged in the last decade?
  • How significant is the spread of animal-origin disease in relation to other new diseases?
  • How much more intensive is, for example, beef farming than it was a decade ago?
  • How much animal trade occurs around the world?

To really understand our globalised world, we need to be able to understand quantitative measures of that world. And, of course, to consider what these numbers mean, question the interpretations of others, and understand how these figures were arrived at.

We want to put this belief into action through developing teaching resources that bring together statistics and global issues ‐ for example, we’re currently in the early stages of planning a role-play activity about the spread of a new pandemic disease.

In the field of health, there are lots of other numbers it would be great to give students the opportunity to analyse and question. For example, GlaxoSmithKline say that they have a 5% share of the world pharmaceuticals market. But what does this mean in terms of the number of people who benefit from the drugs the company makes; and how are these people distributed around the world? How much does it cost to make a new drug? And how could data in relation to these questions be made available in ways that are accessible to students?

On this morning’s Today programme Prof Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, warned of the global threat posed by the emergence of infections – such as TB and malaria – that have become resistant to antibiotics. Could students plot time series data around slow steady re-emergence of previously dormant infections around the UK. What incentives models are there available for companies to develop new antibiotics?

We think that it’s only through learning how to interpret global data, and of course having access to such data, that young people can form fully critical views on the role of pharmaceuticals in global health reduction and prevention, the role of our Christmas dinner (and other meaty meals) on livestock density, and other global issues.

By Kate Brown, Think Global Head of Programmes

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