Cover image: Health, drugs and disease

Health, drugs and disease


Health and disease are issues that affect us all. But how we are affected depends very much on where we live. The World Health Organisation (2011) lists very different leading causes of death, depending on the income bracket the country you live in falls into. What can these facts and figures reveal about life in these countries? Can your students come up with some ideas to explain them?

Low Income Countries - top three causes of death:

  • Lower Respiratory Infections: 75 deaths per 100,000
  • Diarrhoeal diseases: 58 deaths per 100,000
  • Heart disease: 53 deaths per 100,000

High Income Countries - top three causes of death:

  • Heart disease: 143 deaths per 100,000
  • Strokes: 61 deaths per 100,000
  • Alzheimer disease and other dementias: 51 deaths per 100,000.

(Source: World Health Organisation, 2018) You could use some of the excellent Gapminder graphs to help them develop their ideas, such as this one comparing life expectancy and income (particularly good for Science, Maths and Geography lessons). But teaching about health and disease is not just about investigating big numbers and trends; it’s about individual human lives, as demonstrated in this Together TV video about Zambian nurse Edith’s work with sufferers of HIV and AIDS:

Where does health fit into the curriculum?

Science: Human biology – viruses, vaccinations etc., scientific discovery Geography: Geography of disease, health, development History: History of medicine Maths: Interpreting data (eg try this simulation on the spread of infection) PSHE: Personal health

Health and the Sustainable Development Goals

Three of the SDGs are directly related to health, and this is a good starting point for schools to reflect on health issues in the wider world. For a general overview of the SDGs, The Guardian’s Sustainable Development pages on the SDGs are a good starting point. SDG 3: To ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages SDG 6: To ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all SDG 9: To build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation For more information on incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals into your teaching visit the World's Largest Lesson. 

The geography of disease

The Geographical Association has worked with teachers to produce schemes of work and resources for secondary geography teachers to deliver this topic – a good starting point for teachers of any subject, who are interested in tackling global health issues in the classroom.

Mapping disease

Treating disease and the role of pharmaceutical companies

Many of the diseases affecting the world’s poorest people could be reduced by improved access to clean water, better sanitation, a balanced diet, higher levels of education and basic items such as mosquito nets. There are some diseases though, which require more high-tech solutions. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="200"]Photo of a boy being inoculated against polio by Sanofi Pasteur - click to view on Being inoculated against polio[/caption] The World Health Organization was founded in 1948 and, arguably, their greatest success to date is their part in the eradication of smallpox in 1980. You can find out more about this, and see photo galleries, here: The Smallpox Eradication Programme. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are currently campaigning to achieve a similar landmark for humanity. They are behind a massive vaccination drive with the aim of eliminating polio. Videos, photos and infographics here: However, there can be many difficulties with vaccines in less developed countries: expanding populations, lack of skilled health workers, inadequate facilities for transport and storage of vaccines, unreliable electricity supplies and poor nutrition. Many of these challenges mean that some vaccine programmes do not achieve their potential. Even when vaccines and drugs are the best solution to diseases, many people cannot afford them because of the patents and licences are held by multinational pharmaceutical companies. Some of these links below are useful resources to understand this problem:

The spread of disease is not only a challenge for developing countries. We have recently seen outbreaks of measles in the UK, and consequently there has been a real push to make sure that more children in schools are vaccinated against the disease.

A global history of medicine

The history of medicine is a popular unit of work in many schools. Here are a couple of websites with good resources for schools that could be used to support teaching this topic: Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine - The Science Museum interprets 2,500 objects relevant to the history of medicine. The Old Operating Theatre museum has a range of useful links on the history of medicine including Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Arabic, Indian, Native American, Chinese and African influences.

Other useful links on health and disease

Health Check is a weekly half-hour podcast from the BBC World Service on global health issues. The Wellcome Trust's Wellcome Images website is also useful - a wealth of images from their collection that are free to use, many of them relating to health. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine have a series of videos on global health challenges and successes.

Global Calendar

The following days could provide a useful prompt for discussing health issues - follow the links for more information.


The image at the top of the page is typhoid bacteria, by Sanofi-Pasteur on and used under a Creative Commons Licence We welcome feedback - if you have any comments or suggestions for teaching about issues of global health and disease, please let us know in the comments box below.