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Climate change and air pollution are among the top threats to global health 

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Soaring temperatures and drought linked to climate change have been blamed for the ferocity of bushfires in Australia this season
Soaring temperatures and drought linked to climate change have been blamed for the ferocity of bushfires in Australia this season

Credit:
Sam Mooy/Getty Images Asia

Climate change, conflict and the gap between rich and poor are among the top threats to global health, the World Health Organization has said.

In a belated set of new year resolutions WHO has set out how it will tackle the 13 greatest threats to the world’s health over the next decade.

The list is a sign that global health is changing and environmental threats pose just as great a risk as infectious diseases such as Ebola and HIV. It also shows that threats to health can come from any quarter.

Last year’s list was prescient. It included vaccine hesitancy in the year when measles resurged globally: the United States saw the biggest number of measles cases in 25 years and the Western Pacific island of Samoa faced an overwhelming outbreak of the disease which has so far killed more than 80 people, mainly children.

The WHO also warned of the threat of dengue, which exploded around the world last year.

This year WHO is more focused on the challenges to health, rather than on specific disease threats. Unveiling the list WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the list reflected “a deep concern that leaders are failing to invest enough resources in core health priorities and systems”.

He added: “We need to realise that health is an investment in the future. Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly, and far more damaging economically and socially. A pandemic could bring economies and nations to their knees. Which is why health security cannot be a matter for ministries of health alone.”

The challenges to the world’s health, not listed in any order, are:

Climate change and air pollution

WHO says the “climate crisis is a health crisis”, with rising temperatures estimated to kill an additional 250,000 people between 2030 and 2050, mainly due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Air pollution meanwhile kills an estimated seven million people every year.

Conflict and crisis

In 2019 the most complex disease outbreaks took place in countries witnessing protracted conflict – such as the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo where violence has hampered control efforts in this long-running outbreak.

At the same time health workers and facilities continue to be targeted – last year WHO recorded 978 attacks on health care in 11 countries last year, with 193 deaths.

Conflict in countries such as Yemen and Syria is also displacing record numbers of people, leaving tens of millions of people with little access to health care.

Unequal access to health care

There is an 18-year difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries, but also a marked gap within countries.

The global rise in non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes, has a disproportionately large impact on low and middle-income countries. WHO says improving access to primary care is an important way of reducing inequalities

Expanding access to medicines

About a third of the world’s population lack access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and other essential health products. And those products that are available are often substandard or fake, putting people’s lives at risk and fuelling drug resistance.

Infectious diseases

Despite great strides in fighting diseases such as HIV and malaria infectious diseases are expected to kill four million people this year. Meanwhile vaccine preventable diseases such as measles, which killed 140,000 people in 2018, are on the rise.

There has also been an upsurge in the number of cases of polio – there were 156 cases of the disease last year, mainly in Pakistan, the biggest number since 2014. 

Preparing for epidemics

Dr Tedros told the Telegraph last year that a global flu pandemic was the one thing that scared him more than anything else. He said countries were “investing in panic”, for example spending billions of dollars on the 2014-15 West Africa outbreak, rather than investing in preparedness and disease surveillance.

Unhealthy diets

Lack of food, unsafe food and unhealthy diets are responsible for almost one-third of today’s global disease burden. Hunger and food insecurity continue to plague millions, with food shortages being “perniciously exploited” as weapons of war, says WHO.

At the same time, as people consume foods and drinks high in sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and salt, overweight, obesity and diet-related diseases are on the rise globally.

Investment in health workers

Underinvestment in the education of health workers and poor pay has led to health worker shortages all over the world. An additional 18 million health workers will be needed by 2030, primarily in low and middle income countries, WHO warns. 

Keeping adolescents safe

More than a million young people aged 10 to 19 die every year with the leading causes of death road injury, HIV, suicide and lower respiratory infections. Teenagers are also risking their lives and health through harmful use of alcohol, tobacco and drug use, lack of physical activity and unprotected sex.

Earning public trust

One reason for the global resurgence of measles is that the public has lost faith in health professionals and is ignoring messages around the importance of vaccination. Social media has served to fuel this mistrust with many people unsure what to believe. 

Harnessing new technologies

Genome editing, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence have the potential to revolutionise health care but also raise questions about regulation and monitoring. 

Antibiotic resistance

 A recent report warned that worldwide 10 million people will die by 2050 if no action is taken. WHO is working with government officials from both human and animal health sectors to implement its action plan. 

Hygiene and sanitation in health care facilities

Roughly one in four health facilities globally lack basic water services, leading to increased chance of infection for patients and health workers.

 Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security 

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