Healthy environments for children

Every child has the right to grow up in a healthy environment - to live, learn and play in healthy places. Acting to safeguard children’s environments can save millions of lives, reduce disease and provide a safer, healthier world for our children’s future.

1 April 2003

The biggest threats to children’s health lurk in the very places that should be safest - home, school and community. Dangers such as contaminated water, polluted air, lack of basic sanitation, disease-bearing insects and chemical hazards present health risks that disproportionally affect children and cause a huge and unnecessary toll of disease and death.

More than five million children die each year from environment-related diseases and conditions such as diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, malaria and unintentional injuries. Millions more children are debilitated by these diseases or live with chronic conditions linked to their environment, ranging from allergies to mental and physical disability.

Yet this suffering is not inevitable. There are solutions. Most of the environment-related diseases and deaths can be prevented using effective, low-cost and sustainable tools and strategies.

Creating healthy settings - homes, schools and communities

A wide range of solutions have been developed to combat environmental threats to children’s health (see photo gallery for some examples). Most of these interventions fall in the areas of policy, education, awareness raising, technology development and behavioural change.

Tackling environmental threats requires a concerted, coordinated approach, involving people from many different sectors (e.g. health, education, housing, energy, water and planning). By working together, policy-makers, government officials and community members such as parents, teachers and health workers, can building on existing programmes and adapt interventions to local needs.

This multisectoral, participatory approach has been successfully used in several small-scale projects around the world (see box for examples). The challenge is to implement these successful strategies on a national and global scale to provide all children with a healthy place to live, learn and play.

Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA)

WHO is working with various partners and groups around the world to establish a global alliance to tackle environmental threats to children’s health. This initiative was launched in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. By drawing on the strengths of many different parties, the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance aims to mobilize support and intensify global action to make children’s environments safe and healthy places to live, play and learn.

Box: Ensuring healthy places - examples of successful projects

The Healthy Homes Project, South Africa
This project was initiated to tackle environmental health problems in an overcrowded, unsanitary inner-city building and its surroundings, where implementation of traditional environmental control measures had failed. A variety of stakeholders was involved. With the support of the local council's environmental health officers, a tenants committee devised strategies to deal with waste removal and security. Residents volunteered to regularly clean up the local park and surroundings, and engineering students from the local university looked at making improvements to the building design. Overall, this project laid the foundation for a new way to deal with environmental health problems in inner-city buildings, emphasizing community development and stakeholder participation.

Health-promoting schools, Viet Nam
This project set out to make 18 schools cleaner and safer places for children to learn. Teachers, parents, health workers, and specialists in water and sanitation, trained to create health-promoting schools. They then acted by increasing health education, improving water supply and latrines, improving lighting, and providing deworming and eye testing for children. The positive outcomes demonstrated that given training and materials, schools were willing and able to take action.


World Health Day 2003: Shape the future of life
This year’s theme for World Health Day is “healthy environments for children”. Under the slogan “shape the future of life”, events and activities around the world will mobilize action on reducing environmental risks to children’s health.

Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA)
HECA is a new, worldwide alliance to intensify global action on environmental risks to children’s health.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)
The Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA) was inaugurated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August - 4 September 2002).

Photo gallery
Protecting our children