Background: Third World countries are confronted by a complex overlay of two sets of health problems. Traditional maladies, including communicable diseases, malnutrition, and environmental health hazards coexist with emerging health challenges, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and increasing levels of obesity. Using Ecuador as an example, this paper proposes a conceptual framework for linking epidemiologic overlap to emerging social structures and processes at the national and global levels. Discussion: Epidemiologic trends can be seen as part of broader processes related to globalization, but this does not imply that globalization is a monolithic force that inevitably and uniformly affects nations, communities, and households in the same manner. Rather, characteristics and forms of social organization at the subnational level can shape the way that globalization takes place. Thus, globalization has affected Ecuador in specific ways and is, at the same time, intimately related to the form in which the epidemiologic transition has transpired in that country. Summary: Ecuador is among neither the poorest nor the wealthiest countries and its situation may illuminate trends in other parts of the world. As in other countries, insertion into the global economy has not taken place in a vacuum; rather, Ecuador has experienced unprecedented social and demographic change in the past several decades, producing profound transformation in its social structure. Examples of local represent alternatives to centralized health systems that do not effectively address the complex overlay of traditional and emerging health problems.