New report reveals top ten risks to health

Posted: 22 November 2002

A new report reveals for the first time that 40 per cent of global deaths are due to just 10 major health risks, says the World Health Organization (WHO) in its yearly report. And, worldwide, healthy life expectancy can be increased by 5-10 years if governments and individuals make combined efforts against the major health risks in each region.

The World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life breaks new ground by identifying some major principal global risks to disease, disability and death in the world today. The report quantifies their actual impact from region to region, and then provides examples of cost-effective ways to reduce those risks, applicable even in poor countries.

"This report provides a road map for how societies can tackle a wide range of preventable conditions that are killing millions of people prematurely and robbing tens of millions of healthy life," says WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD.

From more than 25 major preventable risks selected for in-depth study, the report finds that the top 10 globally are:

  1. childhood and maternal underweight;

  2. unsafe sex;

  3. high blood pressure;

  4. tobacco;

  5. alcohol;

  6. unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene;

  7. high cholesterol;

  8. indoor smoke from solid fuels;

  9. iron deficiency;

  10. overweight/obesity.
Together, they account for about 40 per cent of the 56 million deaths that occur worldwide annually and one-third of global loss of healthy life years.

The burden from many of the risks is borne almost exclusively by the developing world, while other risks have already become global. Some 170 million children in poor countries are underweight, mainly from lack of food, while more than one billion adults worldwide - in middle income and high income countries alike are overweight or obese. About half a million people in North America and Western Europe die from overweight/obesity-related diseases every year.

Unsafe sex is reported as the second leading cause of illness, with HIV/AIDS alone resulting in 2.9 million deaths in 2000, or 5.2 per cent of total deaths worldwide. Life expectancy at birth in sub-Saharan Africa is currently estimated at 47 years; without AIDS it is estimated that it would be around 62 years.

Shockingly, current estimates suggest that 95 per cent of HIV infections prevalent in Africa in 2001 are attributable to unsafe sex. In the rest of the world the estimated percentage of HIV infections prevalent in 2001 that are attributable to unsafe sex ranges from 25 per cent in Eastern Europe to 90 per cent or more in parts of South America and the developed countries of the Western Pacific.

WHO warns that the "cost of inaction is serious." The report predicts that unless action is taken, by the year 2020 there will be nine million deaths caused by tobacco, compared to almost five million a year now; five million deaths attributable to overweight and obesity, compared to three million now; that the number of healthy life years lost by underweight children will be 110 million, which, although lower than 130 million now, is still unacceptably high.

If all of these preventable risks could be addressed as WHO recommends (which it acknowledges is a highly ambitious goal), healthy life spans could increase as much as 16 plus years in parts of Africa, where healthy life expectancy now falls as low as just 37 years (in Malawi). Even in the richer developing countries, such as Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, healthy life spans would increase by about five years.

"Globally, we need to achieve a much better balance between preventing disease and merely treating its consequences," says Dr Christopher Murray overall director of World Health Report 2002. "This can only come about with concerted action to identify and reduce the major risks to health."

Related link:

The World Health Report 2002