Bulletin of the World Health Organization

The global distribution of risk factors by poverty level

Tony Blakely, Simon Hales, Charlotte Kieft, Nick Wilson, & Alistair Woodward

ABSTRACT

Objective

To estimate the individual-level association of income poverty with being underweight, using tobacco, drinking alcohol, having access only to unsafe water and sanitation, being exposed to indoor air pollution and being obese.

Methods

Using survey data for as many countries as possible, we estimated the relative risk association between income or assets and risk factors at the individual level within 11 medium- and low-income subregions of WHO. WHO and The World Bank data on the prevalence of risk factors and income poverty (defined as living on < US$ 1.00 per day, US$ 1–2.00 per day and > US$ 2.00 per day) were analysed to impute the association between poverty and risk factors for each subregion. The possible effect of poverty reduction on the prevalence of risk factors was estimated using population-attributable risk percentages.

Findings

There were strong associations between poverty and malnutrition among children, having access only to unsafe water and sanitation, and being exposed to indoor air pollution within each subregion (relative risks were twofold to threefold greater for those living on < US$ 1.00 per day compared with those living on > US$ 2.00 per day). Associations between poverty and obesity, tobacco use and alcohol use varied across subregions. If everyone living on < US$ 2.00 per day had the risk factor profile of those living on > US$ 2.00 per day, 51% of exposures to unimproved water and sanitation could be avoided as could 37% of malnutrition among children and 38% of exposure to indoor air pollution. The more realistic, but still challenging, Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people living on < US$ 1.00 per day would achieve much smaller reductions.

Conclusion

To achieve large gains in global health requires both poverty eradication and public health action. The methods used in this study may be useful for monitoring pro-equity progress towards Millennium Development Goals.

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