21/09/2016 5:26 AM AEST | Updated 21/09/2016 5:30 AM AEST

To Improve Public Health We Need To Care About The Statistics

Numbers aren't emotional, but they should be.

Every child deserves our action.
Comic Relief via Getty Images
Every child deserves our action.

Consider the following two scenarios:

1. Gabby is an adorable four-year-old girl who gives a scream of surprise and delight each time she sees a familiar face. She loves My Little Pony and playing with her best friend -- her dog, Wally. Currently, she has Tomasitis, a rare disease, that has resulted in her admission to an Intensive Care Unit where her family sits holding her hand.

2. Last year, there were 438,000 deaths from Malaria worldwide, 70 percent of whom were under five years of age.

Which scenario moved you more? Gabby, or the 438,000 children? Gabby right? It's the way our minds are built -- we care more about identifiable victims than statistical ones.

In actual fact, Tomasitis is so rare, it doesn't actually exist, and Gabby doesn't either.

Despite knowing this, when I read back I am still moved more by Gabby's story as she reminds me of people in my own life, whereas I find it harder to feel the same depth of emotion for a number. This difference in the level of care between "statistical" and "identifiable" patients or stories or victims, is a well-documented phenomenon.

It is part of us being human.

However, it creates an issue for local and global public health efforts to improve population health. In order to garner political will for an issue, the media need to be reporting on it, and a large number of people need to care about it. As it is hard to get people to care about numbers, regardless of their significance, it is hard to garner political will, or the fundraising, to address the issue.

A year ago, images were released of a young toddler named Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach. He was a Syrian refugee. The image triggered global outrage. Newspapers called for action on their front pages. Newsfeeds were filled with pictures of the young victim of the Syrian conflict, and funding for charities involved in the region surged.

In contrast, the news that more than 2 million Syrian children are refugees didn't take over the front pages. Politicians weren't mobilised by this number because we, the voting public, weren't moved by it either. Similarly, the recent video of Omran Daqneesh, a stunned boy in the back of an ambulance, created outrage and drew attention to the plight of Syrian children more than the fact that 100,000 children are trapped and at risk in Aleppo currently. Putting a face to the suffering leads the public to action more than a statistical figure does.

Identifying a victim also influences fundraising for a related cause. Over a decade ago, researchers found that people donate less than half an amount to statistical victims compared to identifiable ones, and when this phenomenon is pointed out to them, they don't increase the amount they give to statistical victims, they just decrease the amount they give to identifiable ones. The identifiable victims get discounted.

Fortunately, there are a number of governments, philanthropists and organisations that look to address the big issues, such as the Gates Foundation effort to address Malaria and eradicate Polio. Thankfully, these groups look for what will have the highest impact, but they aren't able to address every issue, and often need to work in alignment with governments or social groups who need to be motivated to address the problem.

3 million children under five died of preventable diseases in 2015. That doesn't even include the preventable suffering of the children who survived these same diseases, and says nothing of those over five years of age.

Wouldn't it be lovely if a large number like that -- 3 million reasons instead of one -- moved us to action? Or that governments felt obliged to assist thousands of Syrian refugee children before the picture of one dead on a beach is needed?