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Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Print version ISSN 0042-9686

Bull World Health Organ vol.80 n.12 Genebra Jan. 2002 

WHO News

Risk reduction can add 5–10 years to healthy life expectancy

Human beings globally could give themselves an average of 5–10 more years of healthy life, according to the World Health Report 2002 — reducing risk, promoting healthy life, which came out on 30 October. The authors came to this conclusion after quantifying the effects of some of the major risks of illness, disability and death, and then estimating how risk-reduction measures would change the picture. Of the 25 main preventable risks they studied, they found that the top 10 globally were: childhood and maternal underweight, unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco, alcohol, poor hygiene (which includes unsafe water and sanitation), high cholesterol, indoor smoke from solid fuels, iron deficiency, and overweight. Together these account for over 22 million of the 56 million deaths that occur annually (40%), and a third of the total annual loss of healthy life-years.

Though some of these risks are global, others occur almost exclusively in certain parts of the world. About 1000 million people in middle- and high-income countries are overweight, whereas the 170 million children in the world who are underweight are in low-income countries. In North America and Western Europe, half a million people a year die from diseases related to overweight and obesity. In most of Africa, being underweight and having unsafe sex are the top risks, whereas in North America, Western Europe and industrialized countries in the Western Pacific such as Japan, the top risks are tobacco use and high blood pressure.

If all of these preventable risks were dealt with as fully as they can be, the report says, healthy life expectancy would increase by 16 years in the poorest countries of Africa, and by 5.4 years in the richest countries of Europe. "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," WHO's Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, said. "WHO will take this report and focus on the interventions that would work best n each region and on getting the information out to Member States."

The report enumerates measures for reducing some of the risks it describes. For instance, the most cost-effective strategy for reducing under-nutrition is to combine preventive and curative interventions. Micronutrient supplementation with vitamin A, zinc and iron should be combined with maternal counselling to continue breastfeeding, and the provision of complementary foods. In addition, the treatment of diarrhoea and pneumonia both reduces and prevents malnutrition.

More details are given on how to reduce risk in this area and others, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, sexual and reproductive health, addictive substances, and environmental hazards.

Further information can be obtained from Thomson Prentice, Managing Editor, World Health Report (email: prenticet