Public Health Challenges Growing, World Wide


Blood engorged mosquito. Image credit:Healthline

Health challenges are becoming more numerous as new infectious diseases such as SARS, West Nile virus, and avian flu emerge. In addition, the accumulation of chemical pollutants in the environment is starting to take a toll. While infectious diseases are fairly well understood, the health effects of many environmental pollutants are not yet known.

Malaria has an economic impact.
As I note in a recent report, among the leading infectious diseases, malaria claims more than 1 million lives each year, 89 percent of them in Africa. The number of people who suffer from it most of their lives is many times greater. Economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that reduced worker productivity and other costs associated with malaria are cutting economic growth by a full percentage point in heavily affected countries.Although diseases such as malaria and cholera exact a heavy toll, there is no recent precedent of a disease affecting as many people as the HIV epidemic does. If not checked soon, HIV could take more lives during this century than were claimed by all the wars of the last century.

Since the human immunodeficiency virus was identified in 1981, it has spread worldwide, leading to the deaths of more than 25 million people. Today 22 million HIV-positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa, but only 2 million or so are being treated with anti-retroviral drugs. Infection rates are climbing. Countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe could lose more than a fifth of their adult populations within a decade.

Affecting every facet of life and every sector of the economy, the HIV epidemic in Africa is now a development problem--threatening not only to undermine future progress but also to eliminate past gains. It threatens food security by reducing the number of available field workers, undermines the educational system as it decimates the ranks of teachers and leaves millions of orphans in its wake, strains health care systems to the point where many are now unable to provide even basic care, and dries up foreign investment.

Exposure to industrial toxins and waste are on the increase.
While the HIV epidemic is concentrated in Africa, air and water pollutants are damaging the health of people everywhere. A joint study by the University of California and the Boston Medical Center shows that some 200 human diseases, ranging from cerebral palsy to testicular atrophy, are linked to pollutants.

Nowhere is pollution damaging human health more than in China, where deaths from cancer have now eclipsed those from heart ailments and cerebrovascular disease. A Ministry of Health survey of 30 cities and 78 counties that was released in 2007 reveals a rising tide of cancer. The new reality is that each year China grows richer and sicker.

The United States is also feeling the effects of pollution. In July 2005 the Environmental Working Group, in collaboration with Commonweal, released an analysis of umbilical cord blood from 10 randomly selected newborns in U.S. hospitals. They found a total of 287 chemicals in these tests.

The World Health Organization reports an estimated 3 million deaths worldwide each year from air pollutants-three times the number of traffic fatalities. In the United States, air pollution each year claims 70,000 lives, compared with the country's 45,000 traffic deaths.

A U.K. research team reports a surprising rise in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and in motor neuron disease generally, in 10 industrial countries-6 in Europe plus the United States, Japan, Canada, and Australia. Over an 18-year period, death rates from these diseases, mainly Alzheimer's, more than tripled for men and nearly doubled for women. This increase in dementia is likely linked to a rise in the concentration of pesticides, industrial effluents, car exhaust, and other pollutants in the environment.

Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the various effects of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, which now permeates the environment in virtually all countries with coal-burning power plants. EPA research indicates that one out of every six women of child-bearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to harm a developing fetus.

No one knows exactly how many chemicals are manufactured today, but with the advent of synthetic chemicals the number of chemicals in use has climbed to over 100,000. A random blood test of Americans will show measurable amounts of easily 200 chemicals that did not exist a century ago. Most of these new chemicals have not been tested for toxicity.

Follow this link to read the full report.

For more on the population and health issues, see Chapter 6 in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading.

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