Healthy Environments for Children Alliance

Healthy Environments for Children Alliance in Belfast

HECA Session at the 2003 International Healthy Cities Conference in Belfast
19-22 October 2003

The 2003 International Healthy Cities Conference was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland from 19-22 October 2003. The Conference, jointly organized by the City of Belfast and WHO European Healthy Cities Network, provided diverse and exciting opportunities for learning and sharing, networking and connecting as well as debating and shaping visions and plans for the future. Conference objectives, themes and topics addressed can be found at

The WHO Healthy Cities movement is stronger and more relevant than ever. There is now ample recognition of the importance to health and sustainable development of the local dimension and the key role of local governments and the civil society. The implementation of several of the Millennium Development Goals requires strong local action. Healthy Cities has 15 years’ experience of innovative action, developed through times of social and political change in Europe and worldwide. The conference marked the successful conclusion of the phase III (1998-2002) of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network and the launching of Phase IV (2003-2007).

One of the areas that the conference emphasized was healthy environments for children and youth. In this context, the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA) Secretariat at WHO Headquarters organized an interactive panel discussion on Monday, 20 October 2003. Chaired by Professor Roderick Lawrence, Centre for Human Ecology at the University of Geneva, the panel discussion aimed at maximizing exchange of knowledge, lessons learned, policy implications and building on networks from the perspective of healthy cities experiences and healthy environments for children activities at global, regional, national and local levels.

Dr Abdul Sattar Yoosuf, Director, Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments, WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia, gave participants a global overview of the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA) as WHO’s major contribution to follow-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development and a contribution to the realization of the health and environment components of the Millennium Development Goals. He outlined the mission of HECA and its evolution, to date, working with a wide range of stakeholders to develop the principles and values that underpin HECA, the approach to addressing multiple risks factors in settings where children live, learn, play and sometimes work, and priority next steps as outlined in the (HECA Framework for Action).

Mrs Angela Mathee, Senior Specialist Scientist, Environmental Health, Medical Research Council of South Africa, gave the perspective from South Africa on how HECA at the global level is translating into action at national and local levels to address environmental risk factors to children’s health. Mrs Mathee highlighted some of the underlying factors affecting children’s health in South Africa. These include the legacy of apartheid, rapid urbanization, industrialization, inner-city degradation, and poverty with 60 per cent of households in South Africa living in poverty. Major environmental threats to children’s health include poor housing, lack of access to environmental health services, use of biomass for household energy, and exposure to toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and pesticides. Mrs Mathee outlined the mechanisms that have been put in place to establish a national alliance and movement for healthy environments for children. Multisectoral working groups are tasked with developing action plans in priority areas including energy, water and sanitation, lead and violence, as well as on best ways to address risk factors in the home, school and community settings.

She highlighted some of the lessons that can be learned from the healthy cities movement. These were: the importance of political commitment; bureaucratic commitment (e.g., tying progress on healthy environments for children to the performance indicators of civil servants); the wisdom of starting small and focused and working for rapid successes in the initial phases; and the need to invest time and effort in developing and maintaining sound relationships in non-health sectors.

Dr Carlos Dora, Scientist, Protection of the Human Environment, World Health Organization, Geneva, illustrated how intersectoral approaches can provide opportunities to address issues of children’s health in the area of transport (view presentation). This is often a key concern in urban planning and healthy cities programmes. Dr Dora outlined the different steps in a systematic process developed in the European Region, to include environment and health considerations in the agenda of transportation policies. The impacts of transportation policies on children’s physical and social environments, and their health implications, were part of the work.

In drawing lessons from this process, Dr Dora highlighted that the success of the work depended on leadership from a network of actors in transport, environment and health and their ability to understand the needs and to work with the transport sector and interface with this sector’s policy processes. The process also depended on bringing together and using relevant knowledge and experience to help resolve impediments to policy change. With respect to children, this knowledge included presenting examples of transport impacts on children’s health and well-being, as well as sustainable transport solutions for health and the environment that engage children, or focus on children’s settings, such as safe routes to school and walking buses that encourage safe physical activity among children.