• July 8, 2020

Health under threat globally

The rise in noncommunicable diseases has been driven by five major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

In publishing its 13th General Programme of Work, the WHO said the world was facing multiple health challenges. ‘These range from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and diphtheria, increasing reports of drug-resistant pathogens, growing rates of obesity and physical inactivity to the health impacts of environmental pollution and climate change and multiple humanitarian crises,’ it said in a statement.

‘To address these and other threats, 2019 sees the start of the World Health Organization’s new five-year strategic plan – the 13th General Programme of Work. This plan focuses on a triple billion target:  ensuring one billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, one billion more people are protected from health emergencies and one billion more people enjoy better health and well-being. Reaching this goal will require addressing the threats to health from a variety of angles.’

In its announcement, the WHO listed the following 10 issues as being among those that will demand its attention and that of its partners during 2019: ‘air pollution and climate change; noncommunicable diseases; global influenza pandemic; fragile and vulnerable settings; antimicrobial resistance; Ebola and other high-threat pathogens; weak primary health care; vaccine hesitancy; dengue; and HIV’.

In addressing the question of noncommunicable diseases, the WHO said that diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, were collectively responsible for more than 70 percent of all deaths worldwide, accounting for 41 million people. This included 15 million people ‘dying prematurely’, aged between 30 and 69.

‘Over 85 percent of these premature deaths are in low- and middle-income countries,’ the WHO said. ‘The rise of these diseases has been driven by five major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and air pollution. These risk factors also exacerbate mental health issues, that may originate from an early age: half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated – suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds.

‘Among many things, this year WHO will work with governments to help them meet the global target of reducing physical inactivity by 15 percent by 2030 – through such actions as implementing the ACTIVE policy toolkit to help get more people being active every day.’

But it would seem that air pollution is the big threat. The WHO said that nine out of ten people breathed polluted air every day. ‘In 2019, air pollution is considered by WHO as the greatest environmental risk to health,’ it said. ‘Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart and brain, killing seven million people prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease. Around 90 percent of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, with high volumes of emissions from industry, transport and agriculture, as well as dirty cookstoves and fuels in homes.

‘The primary cause of air pollution (burning fossil fuels) is also a major contributor to climate change, which impacts people’s health in different ways. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

‘In October 2018, WHO held its first-ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva. Countries and organizations made more than 70 commitments to improve air quality. This year, the United Nations Climate Summit in September will aim to strengthen climate action and ambition worldwide. Even if all the commitments made by countries for the Paris Agreement are achieved, the world is still on a course to warm by more than 3°C this century.’