From security to risk: Reframing global health threats

Colin McInnes, Anne Roemer-Mahler

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The rise of health issues such as HIV, pandemic influenza and Ebola on international agendas has led to the framing of threats to health as security issues. This has created an uneasy relationship between politics and health, by moving national interests into an area traditionally dominated by scientific rationalities and a predisposition towards cosmopolitan norms. Framing global health threats as risks, however, appears to be less politically charged and divisive, combining an aura of scientific objectivity with a moral call to action. In this article we argue that, despite its technical use in public health, in the policy discourse on global health the risk frame is not immune to values and interests but inherently political. It privileges a specific approach to global health policy which focuses on potential future catastrophes rather than presently existing health problems, emphasises technological solutions rather than addressing the socio-economic determinants of health, while there is no single risk frame, but rather multiple risk frames existing simultaneously, as seen during the 2014-15 West African Ebola outbreak. However, framing health in terms of risk is useful in understanding how health issues reflect and contribute to the wider zeitgeist concerning societal vulnerability: that dangers exist which are uncontrollable and are the product of technical progress. The risk frame allows us to place health issues into this wider context, where disease is just one of a number of concurrent dangers rather than a separately identifiable hazard.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1313-1337
Number of pages25
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 01 Nov 2017


  • Risk
  • Security
  • Global health
  • Ebola
  • Framing
  • preparedness


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