National Press Club

Global health care disparity is unjust, Barbara Bush says

May 26, 2010 | By Hope Katz Gibbs |

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"The extreme disparity in health outcomes and access to health care that exists today between the world’s rich and the world’s poor is unjust and unsustainable," Barbara Bush said at a May 26 National Press Club luncheon.

She discussed the Global Health Corps, a non-profit organization she co-founded and heads.

"We aim to mobilize a global community of young leaders to build a movement for health equity," said the daughter of President George W. Bush. Barbara’s twin sister, Jenna, also attended the event.

"Global Health Corps believes that a global movement of individuals and organizations fighting for improved health outcomes and access to health care for the poor is necessary in order to change the unacceptable status quo of extreme inequity."

Bush cited examples of suffering around the world due to a lack of good health care, including the fact that 500,000 women die during childbirth each year, and that every five seconds a child dies under the age of five dies of a treatable disease in Africa.

When she talked about the moment she'd become a public health advocate, Bush got teary-eyed.

"I was with my parents on a trip to Africa in 2003, and a tiny young girl wanted nothing more than to meet my father," she said. "She looked to me to be about three, but she was actually seven. She died soon after, but meeting her — and all of the wonderful public health officials in her village who were committed to trying to help kids like her — inspired me to want to do something about this devastating problem."

She also talked about the power of her generation when it comes to having a dedication to helping others, innovative ideas, and an innate understanding of technology.

"We grew up with the Internet, and can't imagine the world without text messaging, blogs and Facebook. We also have the energy and skills that are needed to make important changes."

The road from being one of the most celebrated twins in the country to running a non-profit started after Bush graduated from Yale in 2004. She worked at the children's hospital in South Africa and then traveled throughout Africa with UNICEF and the UN World Food Program. She then returned to the U.S. to work on educational programming at a Smithsonian museum in New York, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

About two years ago, she gathered a handful of like-minded friends in her sister's house in Baltimore for the weekend to brainstorm about what they could do to help people in Africa — and throughout the world — attain better health care.

"We decided that what we needed was a good idea, some guts and a business plan," she told the luncheon crowd. "Although starting a non-profit at the height of the recession in 2008 may not have been the best plan, it did give us access to a lot of people who were out of work and rethinking what they wanted to do with their lives."

Twenty-two fellows graduated from Global Health Corps' first program this year. They have been working to improve the health care facilities in Tanzania, Rwanda, Haiti, Boston and Newark.

"Next year, we'll have a class of 40 fellows, and within five years, we hope to be putting 500 fellows in needy areas around the world," Bush said. "I love working in the health field. I'd like to make building up this non-profit my career."

Bush said that although she never lived in the White House (she went to Yale the year her father was sworn in; her sister was a freshman at the University of Texas that year), she appreciated tagging along with her parents as they traveled the world on official business.

"They always were working with non-profit organizations and helping with causes they felt were important, and that inspired me to go into public service," she said. "I always wanted to do something in the field of health that would help others."

And, she insisted, she has no interest in having a career in politics.

What is her advice for Sasha and Malia Obama?

"They are smart, lovely girls who obviously have parents who love them very much," she said. "I'd tell them to take advantage of everything they get to see, to be a support to their parents, and to have fun."