TWN Info Service on Health Issues (June 06/8)

20 June 2006

A Healthy Environment Prevents Deaths and Disease

The WHO in a new report says that millions of deaths could be prevented with better environmental management. These environmental risk factors have the greatest impact on children’s health. The article below describes some of these factors and the interventions required to minimise these risks to health.

It is reproduced with permission from the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) # 6049, 19 June 2006. 

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

Available environmental interventions could save millions of lives

Gustavo Capdevila, IPS, Geneva, 16 June 2006

One quarter of the global disease burden in adults is related to environmental risk factors that could be modified with existing interventions, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a new report Friday.

And in the case of children, environmental factors are involved in more than one-third of the disease burden, said Carlos Corvalan, coordinator of the WHO's department of public health and environment and co-author of the report.

However, "the positive message is that we know which type of interventions need to be done in order to reduce that burden of disease and make sure that our health will benefit,'' said Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and environment.

''We are talking about interventions that are available,'' Neira told IPS. ''We are talking about reducing air pollution indoors and outdoors, about better access to clean water, about the prevention of chronic acute respiratory infections through the use of better fuels, about even the prevention of some non-communicable diseases such as cancer by regulating exposure to certain chemicals or improving the working environment and making sure that all of these will be contributing to our health.''

The WHO is thus calling on environmental policymakers, industry, energy, transport and the health sector to work towards the objective of making ''wise investments'' in terms of the environment, in order to prevent health problems related to environmental factors, she added.

The report ''points to a lot of inequalities, and by knowing where the problems are, we know where to act,'' said Corvalan.

Children overall suffer a greater impact from environmental hazards that could be averted. But in the developing world, there are 12 times more deaths of children caused by environmental exposures than in rich countries.

The problem, however, is much worse when you look at healthy years of life lost in children in the poorest regions of the world, compared with more prosperous regions, said Corvalan. ''You find a difference of 25 times higher road traffic injures, 145 [times] higher diahrroeal diseases in children, eight times higher lower respiratory infections.''

Neira noted that the WHO's environmental health recommendations are closely linked to the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), concrete targets that were adopted by the international community in 2000 to fight global problems like poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease.

For example, reducing to a minimum exposure to environmental risk factors indirectly contributes to the first MDG, which proposes halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, from 1990 levels, said Neira.

Environmentally-caused diseases often lead to loss of income by leaving productive members of a family chronically ill, disabled or dead, thus affecting entire households, she pointed out.

The problem is also linked to the second MDG, focused on achieving universal primary education. Simply providing clean drinking water and latrines or toilets in schools, including separate facilities for girls, keeps children in school, Neira observed.

At the same time, interventions that ensure access to better sources of drinking water and cleaner sources of energy in households will also boost school attendance because children will have more time available, which was previously occupied in fetching water and firewood or other fuels.

Women will also have more time, which can be invested in money-making activities or education, thus contributing to meeting the third MDG: promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Neira cited the cases of diarrhoea and lower respiratory infections, two of the main causes of death among children in Africa.

Worldwide, environmental interventions could prevent the deaths of more than two million children under five every year, thus making major progress towards the fourth MDG: reducing infant and under-five mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.

Although the eight MDGs are all closely related to the WHO plan on "Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments" - the title of the report - that link is most obvious in the case of the seventh goal, guaranteeing environmental sustainability.

The experts noted that some 1.7 million deaths a year are caused by diarrhoeal diseases associated with lack of clean water and adequate sanitation. Indoor pollution from household use of firewood and coal, meanwhile, causes 1.5 million deaths a year from respiratory infections.

Reducing such environmental hazards would significantly improve the health and the lives of millions of slum dwellers, as outlined by the seventh MDG.

The WHO report estimates that more than 13 million deaths a year are caused by preventable environmental factors, and that nearly one-third of death and disease in the world's poorest regions are due to environmental causes.

Furthermore, over 40% of deaths caused by malaria and 94% of deaths from diarrhoea "could be prevented through better environmental management," it adds.

Acting WHO Director-General Anders Nordstrom said: "We have always known that the environment influences health very profoundly, but these estimates are the best to date. This will help us to demonstrate that wise investment to create a supportive environment can be a successful strategy in improving health and achieving development that is sustainable."