WHO calls for urgent and concerted international action to prevent 5 million children’s deaths annually from environmental hazards
World Health Day 2003 urges “Healthy Environments for Children”
Geneva, 7 April 2003 - More than five million children die every year from diseases, infections and accidents related to their surrounding environments. Yet simple actions to improve children’s environments can prevent childhood deaths caused by acute respiratory infections, vector-borne diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea, and accidents on roads and near homes.
Today, World Health Day 2003, the World Health Organization is calling on Member States, the United Nations system, nongovernmental organizations and all other people with a stake in the future of our children’s well-being to take more effective, more visible and more concerted action to reduce the toll of environmental hazards on children’s lives.
"The biggest threats to children’s health lurk in the very places that should be safest – home, school and community. It is a little known but devastating fact that every year over 5 million children ages 0 to 14 die, mainly in the developing world, from diseases related to their environments – the places where they live, learn and play," said WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland during the World Health Day launch in New Delhi, India.
Together, diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and malaria, all associated with environmental risk factors, kill more children worldwide than any other disease.
"These deaths can be prevented. We know what to do. We have developed strategies to combat these threats to children’s health. And yet we must do more to ensure that they are implemented widely, at global, national and local levels," said Dr Brundtland.
It is easy to forget that children, uniquely vulnerable as they grow and develop, are particularly threatened by the quality of their environment. As much as one-third of the world’s total burden of disease may be caused by environmental factors. Children under five, who comprise only 10% of the world population, currently bear 40% of the global disease burden.
- Around two million children under the age of five die each year from acute respiratory infections, the top killer of young children. Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with dirty household fuels puts them seriously at risk.
- Diarrhoea, the second biggest child killer and a disease related to inadequate water and sanitation, claims around 1.3 million children each year.
- Malaria, a vector-borne disease spread by water-breeding mosquitoes kills approximately one million children every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Traffic accidents and drowning are the leading causes of children’s death from unintentional injury worldwide.
In an effort to call attention to environmental threats to children’s health and the simple measures which can prevent them, WHO is dedicating World Health Day on 7 April 2003 to ensuring Healthy Environments for Children.
"Every child has the right to grow up in a healthy home, school and community. The future development of our children – and of their world – depends on their enjoying good health now. We have their future in our hands and now we must work more effectively together to reduce the risks from the environment which our children face," Dr Brundtland said.
Dr Brundtland called on everyone with a stake in making children’s environments healthy to participate in the Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA) and adopt its innovative framework for tackling environmental risks: the settings approach. The Risks
Rather than tackling environmental risks individually and often in an incomplete and haphazard manner, HECA’s settings approach looks to tackle environmental threats holistically by making the places children spend their formative years – their homes, their schools and their communities – safer from all six major classes of environmental risks:
inadequate access to safe drinking water – in 2000, an estimated 1.1 billion people lacked access to an improved water source
poor hygiene and sanitation– around 2.4 billion people around the world do not have access to any type of improved sanitation facilities
disease vectors – mosquitoes and worms are often the result of inadequate water resource management
air pollution – whether indoors from fuel consumption or tobacco smoke or outdoors from traffic and industrial pollution, is a serious risk factor for respiratory disease, a major contributor to ill-health among children around the world
chemical hazards – pollutants from unregulated industries, heavy traffic or toxic waste sites compound the hazards children are exposed to. Chronic exposure to certain chemicals has been linked to damage to the nervous system and may harm reproductive function and child development
unintentional injuries – traffic injuries, poisonings, falls, burns and drownings all pose grave risks to children
Strategies to combat these threats are often inexpensive. Yet they can reap great benefits for the children who live, play and grow in those settings.
- Washing hands with soap or ash before preparing food, before meals and after defecating significantly reduces the risk of diarrhoea, even when the overall quantity of water available is limited.
- Ensuring safe sanitary facilities and the use of separate latrines for boys and girls encourages latrine use and reduces disease transmission. Proper waste management and the relocation of waste dumps away from human settlements protects children from scavenging and exposure to hazards.
- Safe water storage in the home and simple treatment when water quality is in doubt leads to proven health benefits.
- Good ventilation in homes, improved cooking stoves and clean household fuels decrease indoor air pollution and the incidence of acute respiratory infections.
- Screening doors, windows and eaves, along with the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets is very effective protection against malaria.
- Advocating for safer roads, regulating traffic and lowering speed limits reduces the risk of injury and death which children face from road accidents.
The Healthy Environment for Children Alliance (HECA)
Launched in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, HECA aims to provide knowledge, increase political will, mobilize resources, and catalyse action for healthy environments for children. Now, on the occasion of World Health Day and beyond, the Alliance is leading the efforts to focus the world’s attention on the threats to children’s health – and on the means to reduce those threats.
By bringing together government sectors, civil society groups, NGOs, the private sector, the UN family, foundations, research and academic groups, and the children and their families, HECA fosters intersectoral action at the international, national, and local levels. Countries and communities play a key role in ensuring the success of the initiative, as they are crucial players in addressing environmental threats to children's health.
Visit the HECA website
For more information contact: Gregory Hartl; Communications Adviser; WHO Headquarters; Tel: (+41 22) 791 4458; Fax: (+41 22) 791 4858; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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