World Health Day: Our Planet, Our Health

Human health, animal health, and environmental health are inextricably linked to each other.

World Health Day was commemorated on April 7, 2022, the founding day of the World Health Organization (WHO), with the theme “Our Planet, Our Health”.

The WHO posed three questions based on this year’s theme: Are we able to reimagine a world where clean air, water and food are available to all? Where economies are focused on health and well-being? Where cities are liveable and people have control over their health and the health of the planet?

Human health, animal health, and environmental health are inextricably linked to each other.

The WHO estimates that about a quarter of avoidable deaths annually, i.e. more than 13 million deaths globally, are due to avoidable environmental causes, including the climate crisis which is the singular health threat to humanity.

Climate Change Is A Health Crisis

More than 90 per cent of the world’s population breathe unhealthy air from the burning of fossil fuels, which leads to climate change. Rising temperatures cause harm to human health.

Extreme temperatures cause headaches and when temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius, heat strokes result with consequent organ failure and death.

Climate change increases the likelihood of wildfires, which cause suffocation with consequent injury and death; and traumatic mental health. 

Climate change increases the dangers from floods, which can cause poisoning and water shortages.

With rising temperatures, mosquitos spread diseases faster and further than before. The WHO estimate that rising temperatures and floods caused by climate change will lead to an increased risk of dengue for an additional two billion people globally.

Air Pollution Is A Public Health Emergency

The WHO estimate that nine in 10 people in the world are breathing unhealthy air, with outdoor air pollution causing 4.2 million premature deaths globally in 2016. 91 per cent of these deaths were in low and middle- income countries, the greatest number occurring in WHO’s Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions. Malaysia is in the latter region. 

No one can avoid air pollution, irrespective of where one is and one’s station in life. Microscopic pollutants penetrate the body’s respiratory and circulatory systems, causing damage to the lungs, heart and brain.

Globally, air pollution kills 13 people every minute from lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.

There is close relation between air pollution and climate change. The primary cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, like oil, natural gas and coal, which is also a major contributor to air pollution.

As such mitigation efforts in one will improve the other. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change has warned that coal-fired electricity has to cease by 2050, if global warming increases is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The alternative will be major climate crises in about 20 years.

The reduction of air pollution will reduce the incidence of chronic and acute respiratory diseases (including asthma), lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The lower the air pollution levels, the better will be the respiratory and cardiovascular health of the population.

The WHO Air Quality Guidelines: Global Update 2021 provides an assessment of the health effects of air pollution and thresholds of harmful pollution levels.

The primary sources of outdoor air pollution can be reduced by governmental policies and investments that enhance energy-efficient homes and offices, cleaner transport, power generation and industry processes, and better waste management, particularly plastics. 

Tobacco Kills And Pollutes

Tobacco smoking is an addiction. Tobacco kills more than right million of the world’s population annually, and is a major risk factor for cancer, heart and lung diseases, and strokes.

Many are not aware that about 600 million trees are cut down to produce six trillion cigarettes annually, thereby decreasing clean air. 

Malaysia reported to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2020 that about one in five (21.3 per cent) of people aged 15 and older smoke.

Smoking is primarily a male problem, with 40.5 per cent of men aged 15 and above engaging in smoking, compared to 1.2 per cent of women.

The highest smoking rates are in men aged between 30 and 34, where 49 per cent smoke. The data reflects limited, or even no success from the comprehensive tobacco control programme, which has been around since 1993.

The government stated in January 2022 its intention to table a new Tobacco and Smoking Act to regulate e-cigarettes and vaping, and to ensure that there comes a time when, in the words of the health minister, “new generations in this country will no longer know what a cigarette is”.

However, the proposed Bill has yet to see the light of day.

Nutritious Food And Clean Water

Climate change poses significant risks to international food and water security that may lead to hunger and undernutrition for millions globally. 

Polluted water and poor sanitation cause diarrhoeal diseases that affect about 1 million people globally.

There is evidence that increased carbon dioxide emissions from climate change will lead to a reduction in the nutritional value of many essential crops.

It is projected that by the end of the century, grains will contain lower amounts of protein, zinc, vitamin B and iron, reducing micronutrients in major dietary sources.

The yields of vegetable and legume crops could fall by 30 per cent if carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continue at the current trajectory.

Malaysia is the most obese nation in ASEAN. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 20.7 per cent of Malaysian children under five suffer from stunting, and 11.5 per cent from wasting, with 12.7 per cent of 5 to 19-year-olds classified as obese. 

Going Forward

Everyone has a role to play in improving planetary health. 

Individuals can breastfeed, walk more, use public transport, stop smoking, consume fresh groceries and avoid processed foods and beverages, use less plastics and reduce electricity consumption, e.g. turning off the lights when not in the room.

Health care facilities and health care staff can help reduce health care waste and save energy consumption, promote nutritious meals by the reduction of processed foods, support use of environmentally friendly reusable or recyclable products, and importantly, advocate that health be central to climate change policies.

Employers can remove processed foods and beverages from the workplace, reduce energy consumption by switching off lights after working hours, promote work-from-home policies and breastfeeding, ensure safe water for employees, and reduce CO2 emissions.

The government has a major role to play. It can put human health and ecological stability at the core of all its decisions, reduce fossil fuel usage, implement policies for clean renewable energy, incentivise carbon reduction, tax polluters, implement the WHO air quality guidelines, reduce air pollution to reduce its disease burdens

It can also get serious about tobacco control, tax foods and beverages high in sugars, salts, and unhealthy fats, implement policies that encourage sustainable and healthy food production, ensure cities have green areas for physical activity, implement policies to reduce food wastage, and implement environment-friendly policies to reduce waste and plastic usage.

The WHO summarises the challenges succinctly: “A well-being economy has human well-being, equity and ecological sustainability as its goals. These goals are translated into long-term investments, well-being budgets, social protection and legal and fiscal strategies. Breaking these cycles of destruction for the planet and human health requires legislative action, corporate reform and individuals to be supported and incentivized to make healthy choices.”    

Dr Milton Lum is a Past President of the Federation of Private Medical Associations, Malaysia and the Malaysian Medical Association. This article is not intended to replace, dictate or define evaluation by a qualified doctor. The views expressed do not represent that of any organisation the writer is associated with.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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