Unhealthy environments a major threat to young children



The first-ever Atlas of Children's Health, published by WHO on 22 June, attributes the annual deaths of more than three million children under the age of five to environment-related hazards such as unsafe water and sanitation, indoor and outdoor air pollution and climate change. Whilst only 10% of the world's population is under five years old, 40% of the environment-related disease burden falls on children in this age group.

The illustrated Atlas of children's environmental health and the environment, launched during the Fourth European Conference of Health and Environment Ministers in Budapest, Hungary, aims to illustrate the impact of the environment on children's health. According to the Atlas, diarrhoea which is often caused by unclean water, kills an estimated 1.8 million people worldwide every year, 1.6 million of whom are children under the age of five.

"Children are the main sufferers of environmental hazards. It is unacceptable from every point of view that the most vulnerable members of a society should be the ones who pay the price for failures to protect health from environmental dangers," said WHO Director-General, Dr LEE Jong-wook, during the launch.

It is hoped that the facts contained in the publication will draw attention to the urgent need for a more effective response to the United Nations Millennium Declaration which calls on governments to reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015.

"This is a wake-up call for us and for the world," said Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments. "The number of child deaths is alarming. It paints a dismal picture of neglect. We must face up to reality and act now to work towards a sustainable and brighter future."

The Ganges River in India was highlighted as a major environmental hazard — 1.1 million litres of raw sewage are dumped into it every minute. This represents a significant risk in the light of the fact that one gram of faeces in untreated water may contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and a hundred worm eggs, according to WHO. In Asia, 65% of all wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Other major environmental hazards included the black smoke produced by cooking with solid fuels such as wood, dung, coal or crop waste — a method used by over 75% of households in most Asian and African countries. This puts children and others at risk of respiratory infections and may worsen pre-existing health problems such as pneumonia.



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