Infectious diseases, non-zero-sum thinking, and the developing world

Am J Med Sci. 2003 Aug;326(2):66-72. doi: 10.1097/00000441-200308000-00003.


Despite some improvements in the health status of the world during the last few decades, major obstacles remain. Improvements in health outcomes have not been shared equally among countries and poverty is clearly the main reason. Infectious diseases, which remain the major cause of death worldwide, are an incalculable source of human misery and economic loss. In fact, 25% of all deaths and 30% of the global burden of disease are attributed to infectious diseases. Unfortunately, more than 95% of these deaths, most of which are preventable, occur in the developing world, where poverty is widespread. The 3 major infectious disease killers in these countries are HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The principles of social justice and health as a human right in the developing world have been advocated as the main justification for health assistance from rich to poor countries. Although we do not disagree with this, we argue that a strategy that emphasizes the shared benefit to rich and poor countries would facilitate this process. We propose that the accomplishment of these challenging tasks should be viewed from the perspective of game theory, where the interests of the parties (in this case rich and poor countries) overlap. As the world becomes increasingly integrated, economic development in resource-poor countries will increase the opportunities for richer countries to profit from investment in the developing world. Global health has political and international security implications for the developed world, as well. In view of the current health status of the developing world, we are not playing a game but facing a matter of life and death. "When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot become manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied" --Herophilus, 325 BCE (Physician to Alexander the Great). The purpose of this article is to address the relationship between health, poverty, and development in the context of game theory. We will focus on the link between economic inequalities and health outcomes, exclusively concentrating our analysis on the impact of infectious diseases. Subsequently, we will outline the game, the players, and the potential win-win outcomes that may potentially result.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Communicable Diseases / economics*
  • Developing Countries / economics*
  • Global Health*
  • Humans
  • Models, Economic*
  • Poverty / economics
  • Thinking*