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Tackling global health risks prevents premature deaths

Millions of premature deaths can be prevented

News release

Global life expectancy could be increased by nearly five years by addressing five factors affecting health – childhood underweight, unsafe sex, alcohol use, lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and high blood pressure, according to a report published by WHO today.

These are responsible for one-quarter of the 60 million deaths estimated to occur annually.

Global health risks describes 24 factors affecting health. These are mixture of environmental, behavioural and physiological factors, such as air pollution, tobacco use and poor nutrition.

The report also draws attention to the combined effect of multiple risk factors. Many deaths and diseases are caused by more than one risk factor and may be prevented by reducing any of the risk factors responsible for them.

"More than a third of the global child deaths can be attributed to a few nutritional risk factors such as childhood underweight, inadequate breastfeeding and zinc deficiency," says Colin Mathers, Coordinator for Mortality and Burden of Disease at WHO.

Eight risk factors alone account for over 75% of cases of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide. These are alcohol consumption, high blood glucose, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, low fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries.

"Understanding the relative importance of health risk factors helps governments to figure out which health policies they want to pursue, " says Mathers. "In many countries there is a complex mix of risk factors. Countries can combine this type of evidence along with information about policies and their costs to decide how to set their health agenda."

Other findings:

  • nine environmental and behavioural risks, together with seven infectious causes, are responsible for 45% of cancer deaths worldwide;
  • worldwide, overweight and obesity causes more deaths than underweight;
  • unhealthy and unsafe environments cause one in four child deaths worldwide;
  • 71% of lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco smoking;
  • in low-income countries, easily remedied nutritional deficiencies prevent one in 38 newborns from reaching the age of five;
  • 10 leading preventable risks decrease life expectancy by nearly seven years globally and by more than 10 years for the region of Africa.

The report uses extensive data from WHO and other scientific studies. It estimates the effects of 24 risks to health on deaths, diseases and injuries by region, age, sex and country income for the year 2004. These are the most recent data available due to the time required for collection and analysis.

For further information on the Global health risks report contact:

Dr Colin Mathers
Health Statistics and Informatics
Telephone: +41 22 791 4529
E-mail: mathersc@who.int

Dr Gretchen Stevens
Health Statistics and Informatics
Telephone: +41 22 791 1031
E-mail: stevensg@who.int

Maya Mascarenhas
Health Statistics and Informatics
Telephone: +41 22 791 1855
E-mail: mascarenhasm@who.int

Alice Ghent
Communications Officer
Telephone: +41 22 791 1498
Mobile: +41 79 206 1087
E-mail: ghenta@who.int

Fiona Fleck
Communications Officer
Telephone: +41 22 791 1897
Mobile: +41 79 206 1403
E-mail: fleckf@who.int

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