Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Unhealthy Environments Cause 25 Percent of Deaths Worldwide—What Can Be Done?

Aedes aegypti mosquito
Above: Scientists have theorized that climate change has played a critical role in the spread of this mosquito-borne viruses such as Zika. Photo credit: James Gathany

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that finds a staggering 12.6 million people die each year as a result of environmental cause. That’s nearly one in four deaths globally. Environmental factors such as air pollution, chemical exposure, and climate change contribute to more than 100 different types of diseases and injuries worldwide.

Every system needs an upgrade from time to time, and the global health infrastructure is no different.

That’s why we teamed up with The Lancet last year to launch The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health. Planetary health is a new field rooted in the idea that the health of the Earth and the health of its people are deeply intertwined, for better and for worse—we think of it as “public health 2.0.” Now, new evidence has confirmed just how deep the link between people and planet really is.

And this link is especially strong when it comes to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). As the name implies, you won’t catch NCDs from your friends or family, but this report shows that you can certainly “catch” them from your surroundings. Leading global killers like stroke, heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease account for two-thirds of deaths exacerbated by unhealthy environments.

The message is clear: By neglecting the health of our planet, we have critically endangered our own. To break this cycle, we need to recognize and embrace the broad connections between human health and the environment so we can identify more effective solutions to the problems at hand. If we fail to do so, we may leave future generations with a world that is quite literally dangerous to their health.

There’s precedent for this kind of shift.

More than a hundred years ago, when The Rockefeller Foundation mobilized to fight hookworm, doctors quickly learned that this parasitic disease was inseparable from the poverty and unsanitary conditions in which it thrived. They were only able to stop the spread of the disease by combining medical treatment with education about hygiene and sanitation—a lesson that became the base for the then-new discipline of public health. More than a century later, increasingly complex health challenges—fueled by rapid urbanization, globalization, and climate change—are pushing us to evolve again.

Eradicating Hookworm
Above: In 1910, an estimated 40% of the population of the southern United States was infected with hookworm. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease (RSC) was created with the intention of eliminating the disease across the region. Photo credit: 100 Years: The Rockefeller Foundation

Last year, a group of leading scientists came together to form a new community of practice called the Planetary Health Alliance, which The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support. Leading experts on climate science, environmental research, sustainability, ecology, economics, sociology, and cutting-edge medicine came together to examine the links between people and planet. What became clear is how many of today’s global health issues can benefit from the interdisciplinary lens that planetary health provides.

Take Zika, currently spreading across Latin America and the Caribbean. Scientists have theorized that rising temperatures and increased precipitation due to climate change are behind the spread of this mosquito-borne virus. If this sounds familiar, it should. We’ve already seen the role of deforestation and global warming in the proliferation of malaria, yellow fever, and Lyme disease. Halting the spread of diseases like these requires more than just treating them medically. We must address the environmental factors that allow them to thrive. And we must recognize the economic and market benefits that come from taking a planetary health approach to these challenges.

In water and sanitation, we’ve already taken big steps in the right direction. According to the WHO report, deaths from infectious diseases like diarrhea have decreased dramatically over the last few years because of increased access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Now, the report urges us to extend this thinking beyond the water we drink.

The more we understand how the health of the planet and our own health are connected, the better our solutions will be.

If we can transition to clean technologies and fuels for domestic heating and lighting in homes and kitchens around the world, we would reduce the burden of respiratory conditions, heart problems, and burns. And improving urban planning and transit can make a difference, too. By investing in bus rapid transit, recycling, and green spaces, Curitiba, Brazil has reduced air pollution, encouraged healthy physical activity, and increased life expectancy to two years beyond the national average.

Curitiba, Brazil has invested heavily in slum upgrading, waste recycling, and a popular “bus rapid transit” system which is integrated with green spaces and pedestrian walkways to encourage walking and cycling. Despite a five-fold population increase in the past 50 years, air pollution levels are comparatively lower than in many other rapidly growing cities and life expectancy is 2 years longer than the national average. Photo credit: Mariana Gil/ EMBARQ Brasil
Above: Despite a five-fold population increase in the past 50 years, Curitiba’s “bus rapid transit” system has helped limit air pollution levels and generate an average life expectancy 2 years longer than the national average. Photo credit: Mariana Gil/ EMBARQ Brasil

The more we understand how the health of the planet and our own health are connected, the better our solutions will be. This World Health Organization report is just the most recent reminder that we can’t afford to think of ourselves as immune to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live. Public health alone can only take us so far. We’ve got to think bigger, about building a field as appropriate for this century as public health was for the last—public health 2.0.

Leave a comment