Health promotion

Track 2: Health literacy and health behaviour

7th Global Conference on Health Promotion: track themes

Health Literacy has been defined as the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health. Health Literacy means more than being able to read pamphlets and successfully make appointments. By improving people's access to health information and their capacity to use it effectively, health literacy is critical to empowerment.

Defined this way, Health Literacy goes beyond a narrow concept of health education and individual behaviour-oriented communication, and addresses the environmental, political and social factors that determine health. Health education, in this more comprehensive understanding, aims to influence not only individual lifestyle decisions, but also raises awareness of the determinants of health, and encourages individual and collective actions which may lead to a modification of these determinants. Health education is achieved therefore, through methods that go beyond information diffusion and entail interaction, participation and critical analysis. Such health education leads to health literacy, leading to personal and social benefit, such as by enabling effective community action, and by contributing to the development of social capital.

This approach also recognizes the issue of power and how power relations affect access to information and its use, as has been seen in the case of promoting women's sexual and reproductive health. Health Literacy promotes empowerment, which in turn is vital for achieving the internationally agreed health and development goals as well as the emerging threats such as from the pandemic influenza, climate change and non-communicable diseases.

This track will closely examine the issues involved in achieving health literacy in this comprehensive sense, and identify strategic actions needed to lead the way forward. It will examine the role of other sectors in contributing to health literacy, and consider advocacy with and strategic alliances with the education sector - and at all levels, international, national and local - to achieve this. Recognising that health literacy requires more than the transmission of information, it will explore the latest developments in participatory approaches to determine how people can develop the skills, knowledge and efficacy to act on that knowledge in order to maintain good health. It will reveal how such actions are needed in developed as well low- and middle-income countries.

Health literacy in action

Communities in project sites in eight countries in Meso-america were encouraged to keep their environment mosquito-free in order to prevent and control the spread of malaria without the use of DDT. Individuals and families kept their homes, patios and surroundings free of collected water, covered water storage containers, and managed their drainage systems.

They also jointly organized community cleanings of their neighbourhood, including streets, forested areas, swamps and riverside areas. These efforts helped reduce the vector density and therefore malaria cases. In a three year period, the demonstration sites saw a reduction of 63% in malaria cases and 86.2% in cases caused by plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the greatest morbidity and mortality on account of malaria in the world.

(Source: WHO/PAHO 2009, Proyecto DDT/PNUMA/GEF/OPS, Programa Regional de Acción y Demostración de Alternativas de Control de Vectores de la Malaria sin el uso del DDT en México y Centroamérica)


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2. Nutbeam, D. (1998) Health promotion glossary, Health Promotion International
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4. WHO. Background Note: Regional Preparatory Meeting on Promoting Health Literacy [Internet]. UN ECOSOC, 2009 [cited 2009 May 11]: Download the review