More than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes and the lives of as many as 4 million children alone, mostly in developing countries, could be saved by preventing such ecological risks, according to a new United Nations report released last week, the most comprehensive yet on the issue.

“We have always known that the environment influences health very profoundly, but these estimates are the best to date,” Acting UN World Health Organization Director-General Anders Nordström said in issuing the study, which shows that as much as 24 per cent of global disease, and 33 per cent of that in children under five, is caused by environmental exposures that can be averted.

The four main diseases influenced by poor environments are diarrhoea, lower respiratory infections, various forms of unintentional injuries, and malaria. Preventive measures include safe household water storage and better hygienic measures; cleaner and safer fuels; increased building safety, better management of toxic substances in the home and workplace; and better water resource management.

“This will help us to demonstrate that wise investment to create a supportive environment can be a successful strategy in improving health and achieving development that is sustainable,” Dr. Nordström said of the report - ‘Preventing disease through healthy environments - towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease.’

By focusing on the environmental causes of disease, and how various diseases are influenced by environmental factors, the analysis breaks new ground, reflecting how much death, illness and disability could be realistically avoided every year as a result of better environmental management.

Nearly one third of death and disease in the least developed regions is due to environmental causes. Over 40 per cent of malaria deaths and an estimated 94 per cent of those from diarrhoeal diseases, two of the world’s biggest childhood killers, could be prevented through better environmental management.

“For the first time, this new report shows how specific diseases and injuries are influenced by environmental risks and by how much,” the Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health and Environment, Maria Neira said.

“It also shows very clearly the gains that would accrue both to public health and to the general environment by a series of straightforward, coordinated investments. We call on ministries of health, environment and other partners to work together to ensure that these environmental and public health gains become a reality.” The research, involving systematic review of literature as well as surveys of over 100 experts worldwide, identifies specific diseases affected by well-known environmental hazards - and by how much.

“In effect, we now have a 'hit list' for problems we need to tackle most urgently in terms of health and the environment," Dr. Neira said. Diseases with the largest number of deaths annually from such causes: 2.6 million from cardiovascular diseases; 1.7 million deaths from diarrhoeal illness; 1.5 million from lower respiratory infections; 1.4 million from cancers; 1.3 million from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; 470,000 from traffic crashes; and 400,000 from unintentional injuries.


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