Brussels, 16 Jun 2006
A new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that as much as 24 per cent of global disease and 23 per cent of all deaths are caused by environmental exposures, many of which could be prevented by better environmental management.
The report, 'Preventing disease through healthy environments - towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease', looks at the role of environmental factors in 85 categories of disease and injury. By focusing on environmental hazards that are most amenable to change, the researchers are able to highlight which preventive measures will have the biggest impact.
'For the first time, this new report shows how specific diseases and injuries are influenced by environmental risks and by how much,' said Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO's Department for Public Health and Environment. 'It also shows very clearly the gains that would accrue to both public health and to the general environment by a series of straightforward, coordinated investments. In effect, we now have a 'hit list' for problems we need to tackle most urgently in terms of health and the environment.'
The report estimates that 13 million deaths a year, including those of four million children, are due to preventable environmental causes. The four diseases most influenced by poor environments were diarrhoea, lower respiratory infections, unintentional injuries and malaria. The incidence of all of these could be dramatically reduced by introducing safer household water storage and better hygiene; the use of cleaner and safer fuels; increased safety in the built environment and better water resource management.
There are wide disparities in the way environmental causes of disease are distributed around the world, with developing countries taking a disproportionate share of the burden. This is particularly the case for infectious diseases and injuries. Children are also disproportionately affected, with over a third of all child deaths attributable to environmental causes.
In the developed world, 17 per cent of disease is caused by environmental factors. Here, cardiovascular disease and cancer have a higher per capita impact than in the developing world.
The report's authors note that many of the environmental health interventions they recommend are cost effective and will bring wider benefits to communities. Many of the Millennium Development Goals have environmental health components. They call on ministries of health, environment and other partners to work together to ensure measures are put in place to reduce these unnecessary deaths.