Geography and Your Health

It is said that “geography is destiny.” This definitely seems to be the case when we consider the health of people from around the globe. A country’s economics are inextricably tied to the health of its populace.

In teacher workshops this fall, I have been facilitating Unfair Race, an activity which visually illustrates this connection between affluence and health. This activity has proven especially timely during this year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which serves as a sobering example of how an epidemic becomes so much more deadly when health funds, personnel and adequate facilities are in short supply.

The leading causes of child mortality in the least developed countries stem from poor sanitation. Preventable water-borne diseases (cholera, dysentery, typhoid and typhus) claim the lives of 1.5 million children every year. A million die each year in Africa from malaria, a disease that was eradicated in the United States nearly 70 years ago with mass government programs to kill the affected mosquitoes and the drain the areas where they bred. Cumulatively, such health disparities lead to a drastic difference in life expectancy from a high of 80 in the European Union to a low of 57 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Unfair Race, each student receives a card of health and economics statistics for a different country. The nine statistics on their cards include life expectancy, infant mortality rates, immunization rates, healthcare expenses per capita, annual average income, malaria threat, access to clean water, prevalence of doctors and school attendance.

At the outset of the activity, all students line up, shoulder to shoulder, against one side of the classroom. As you read instructions, students will take steps forward or back or stand still based on your instructions. (Example: “If the percentage of people with access to clean drinking water is 90-100 percent, take two steps forward. If it’s between 70 and 90 percent, take one step forward.”) Once the statements are read, students are staggered across the room. They are then instructed to “race” to the opposite wall. With those representing the most affluent countries, just steps away from the finish line and the poorest countries near the starting point, it’s obviously an “unfair race.”

Unfair Race is a great discussion starter on health disparities across the globe and provides a useful context in discussing today’s health headlines.