Predicting what 2020 will bring (in addition to an extra day) is not easy, but this year’s happenings have certainly given us a taste of what is to come. And much as the sensation of taste results from the combination of five basic tastes perceived by receptors in our tongue, so was the flavour of this year’s scenario for global health.
Perceiving bitterness has been important for human survival – a large number of natural bitter compounds are toxic. And few things are more toxic for society than misinformation, and for public health, the antivax movement. The recent measles outbreak in Samoa, where vaccine coverage decreased considerably in the last years, has already caused 73 deaths (and counting). Globally, measles cases have spiked in 2019 and the situation is not likely to change unless greater vaccine coverage is achieved. This is doubly worrying since the measles virus can wipe out the immune system’s memory for other diseases.
Acidity is highly unpleasant in large quantities. In today’s world, few things are more corrosive than the widening inequalities – for example in health status and life expectancy - not only between but also within countries. As the UN 2019 Human Development Report shows, inequality is not only about income but also opportunity. In many countries, upward social mobility is not occurring anymore and this has led to a growing frustration reflected in recent protests in the Middle East and Latin America.
Salt, needless to say, is dangerous to our health in large quantities. And today, nothing poses a greater threat to humankind than climate change. 2019 marks the close of the hottest decade in recorded history, and the UNEP warns in its 2019 report that countries are simply not doing enough to limit global warming to 1.5 oC. Rising temperatures are taking their toll on human health: in 2019 almost 1,500 deaths in France alone due to the July heat wave; unprecedented air pollution levels in Sydney due to the bushfires; a sharp increase in dengue cases worldwide fuelled by the spread of its vector, to cite some examples.
We taste umami (Japanese for ‘pleasant savoury taste’) through receptors that detect the building blocks of proteins, essential for our survival. Innovation is certainly a key ingredient to face today’s challenges, and the good news is that there is a lot of that going on. In the field of health, artificial intelligence has made great progress and could become particularly relevant for improving health in low income countries. Notably, portable low-cost devices for use in communities and households show great promise in helping detect and manage chronic diseases in regions with limited resources or access.
Sweetness is definitely a pleasurable sensation and is often associated to optimism. In this sense, Greta Thunberg and the youth activism she has catalysed are among the most encouraging news of 2019. A rapid and profound transformation of our society and economy is urgently needed, and these future leaders should play a major role in the process. Hopefully, by 2030, they will be leading the planet towards a new global agenda defined by an entirely different set of rules.
Today, we crave for reasons to be optimistic as much as we have always craved for sweet and pleasant tastes. May 2020 mark the beginning of a better-tasting decade!