Better Health For All: Critical To Reduce Population Growth & Poverty


Rural Ugandan children fetch contaminated drinking water. Image credit:The Water School

Ensuring basic health care for people in low-income countries is critical to the Plan B goal of eradicating poverty and stabilizing population.At the Earth Policy Institute, we note that while heart disease, cancer, obesity, and smoking dominate health concerns in industrial countries, in developing countries infectious diseases are the overriding health concern. Besides AIDS, the principal diseases of concern are diarrhea, respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, malaria, and measles. Child mortality is high.

Progress in reaching the United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality two thirds by 2015 is lagging badly. As of 2005 only 32 of 147 developing countries are on track to reach this goal. In 23 countries child mortality has either remained unchanged or risen.

One of the most impressive health gains has come from a campaign initiated by a little-heralded nongovernmental group in Bangladesh, BRAC, that taught every mother in the country how to prepare oral rehydration solution to treat diarrhea at home by simply adding salt and sugar to water. BRAC succeeded in dramatically reducing infant and child deaths from diarrhea in a country that was densely populated, poverty-stricken, and poorly educated.

UNICEF then used BRAC’s model for its worldwide diarrheal disease treatment program, reducing deaths from diarrhea among children from 4.6 million in 1980 to 1.6 million in 2006. Few investments have saved so many lives at such a low cost.

One of the international community’s finest hours came with the eradication of smallpox, an effort led in the United Nations by the World Health Organization (WHO). This successful elimination of a feared disease, which required a worldwide immunization program, saves not only millions of lives but also hundreds of millions of dollars each year in smallpox vaccination programs and billions of dollars in health care expenditures.

Some leading sources of premature death are lifestyle-related, such as smoking. WHO estimates that 5.4 million people died in 2005 of tobacco-related illnesses, more than from any single infectious disease.

Impressive progress is being made in reducing cigarette smoking, led by WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first international accord to deal entirely with a health issue, which was adopted unanimously in Geneva in May 2003. Among other things, the treaty calls for raising taxes on cigarettes, limiting smoking in public places, and strong health warnings on cigarette packages.

Ironically, the country where tobacco originated is now leading the world away from it. In the United States, the average number of cigarettes smoked per person has dropped from its peak of 2,814 in 1976 to 1,225 in 2006--a decline of 56 percent. Worldwide, usage dropped 16 percent between 1988 and 2004. Indeed, smoking is falling in nearly all the major cigarette-smoking countries, including such strongholds as France, China, and Japan.

Following approval of the Framework Convention in 2003, a number of countries including Ireland, India, England, and France have taken strong steps to reduce smoking. Bhutan, a small Himalayan country sandwiched between India and China, has prohibited tobacco sales entirely.

Looking more broadly, a 2001 WHO study analyzing the economics of health care in developing countries concluded that providing the most basic health care services, the sort that could be supplied by a village-level clinic, would require donor grants averaging just $33 billion per year. In addition to basic services, this $33 billion includes funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and for universal childhood vaccinations. Such an effort would yield enormous economic benefits for developing countries and for the world as a whole.

Read the full report.

For more on the population and health issues, see Chapters 6 and 7 in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading.

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