Poor environment linked to one-third of childhood diseases

Posted: 22 June 2006

Worldwide, over 33 per cent of disease in children under the age of five is caused by environmental factors, warns the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yet the lives of as many as four million children could be saved through better environmental management, says the global health organisation.

Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO
Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia. Photo: WHO
Young malaria patient near Alem Kitmama, Ethiopia.© WHO
As much as 24 per cent of global disease is caused by environmental exposures which can be averted by well-targeted interventions, the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals in its report.

"The report is a major contribution to ongoing efforts to better define the links between environment and health," said Dr Anders Nordström, Acting WHO Director-General. "We have always known that the environment influences health very profoundly, but these estimates are the best to date. "

The report estimates that more than 13 million deaths annually are due to preventable environmental causes. The four main diseases triggered by poor environments are diarrhoea, lower respiratory infections, various forms of unintentional injuries (other than road traffic injuries), and malaria.

Reducing risk

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

Safe water, west Delhi, India. Photo: WHO
Safe water, west Delhi, India. Photo: WHO
Safe water, west Delhi, India.© WHO
The report shows that simple measures could be taken now to reduce risk, including safe household water storage and better hygienic measures, the use of cleaner and safer fuels, increased safety of the built environment, more judicious use and management of toxic substances in the home and workplace, and better water resource management.

"For the first time, this new report shows how specific diseases and injuries are influenced by environmental risks and by how much," said Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO's Department for Public Health and Environment. "It also shows very clearly the gains that would accrue both to public health and to the general environment by a series of straightforward, co-ordinated investments."

The research entailed surveys of over 100 experts worldwide, as well as a systematic review of literature. It identifies specific diseases impacted by certain well-known environmental hazards - and by how much. Pulling together evidence on environmental and health links in 85 categories of disease and injury, the findings show that the environment significantly affects more than 80 per cent of these major diseases.

"In effect, we now have a 'hit list' for problems we need to tackle most urgently in terms of health and the environment," noted Dr Neira.

Health burden

Diseases with the largest total annual health burden from environmental factors, in terms of death, illness and disability or Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs)¹ are:

  • Diarrhoea - 58 million DALYS per year; 94 per cent of the diarrhoeal burden of disease largely from unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Lower respiratory infections - 37 million DALYs per year; 41 per cent of all cases globally largely from air pollution, indoor and outdoor
  • Unintentional injuries other than road traffic injuries - 21 million DALYs per year; 44 per cent of all cases globally, classification which includes a wide range of industrial and workplace accidents
  • Malaria - 19 million DALYs per year; 42 per cent of all cases globally, largely as a result of poor water resource, housing and land use management which fails to curb vector populations effectively.
  • Road traffic injuries - 15 million DALYS per year; 40 per cent of all cases globally, largely as a result of poor urban design or poor environmental design of transport systems.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD) - a slowly progressing disease characterized by a gradual loss of lung function. COPD, 12 million DALYs per year; 42 per cent of all cases globally largely as a result of exposures to workplace dusts and fumes and other forms of indoor and outdoor air pollution.
  • Perinatal conditions - 11 million DALYS per year; 11 per cent of all cases globally
Most of the same environmentally-triggered diseases also rank as the biggest killers outright - although they rank somewhat differently in order of lethality.

Diseases with the largest absolute number of deaths annually from environmental factors that could be changed to reduce risk, are:

  • 2.6 million deaths annually from cardiovascular diseases
  • 1.7 million deaths annually from diarrhoeal diseases
  • 1.5 million deaths annually from lower respiratory infections
  • 1.4 million deaths annually from cancers
  • 1.3 million deaths annually from chronic obstructive Pulmonary disease
  • 470,000 deaths annually from road traffic crashes
  • 400,000 deaths annually from unintentional injuries
WHO is calling on governments to work with sectors such as energy, transport, agriculture and industry to curb the most serious killers that cause millions of unnecessary deaths each year.

1. DALYs = Disability Adjusted Life Years: The sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality and the years of productive life lost due to disability.

Related links:

Read the report: Report: Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: towards and estimate of the environmental burden of disease

Executive Summary of report

Radio interview relating to the report

From our website, see:

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