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Countries of the Americas Pledge Action to Improve Urban Health

Washington, D.C., 28 September 2011 (PAHO/WHO) – Ministers of health from throughout the Americas agreed today to carry out a series of actions, with support from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), to improve health conditions in cities, where nearly 80 percent of the hemisphere’s population resides.

The health ministers are gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for the 51st Directing Council meeting of PAHO/WHO, where they are debating regional public health policies and setting priorities for joint action.



Delegates to the meeting approved a new Strategy and Plan of Action on Urban Health that includes multisector measures that address the health impact of changes in urban life, particularly rapid and unplanned urbanization.

Unplanned urban growth puts pressure on basic services and makes it difficult for governments to meet the needs of urban residents. This in turn increases risks related to environmental, social, and epidemiological factors and disasters, affecting the safety of the population.

In 1950, 29.1 percent of the world’s population (732 million people) lived in urban areas. By 2008, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population was living in urban areas, according to the United Nations. That proportion is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2050.

In the Americas, the urban population has increased 187 percent since 1970. The Region is now the most urbanized in the developing world, with 79.4 percent of its 556 million inhabitants living in urban areas. Six of the world’s largest cities are in this hemisphere: Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York City, Río de Janeiro and São Paulo.

The strategy and plan of action approved this week by PAHO/WHO member countries addresses issues including air and noise pollution, climate change, healthy lifestyles, healthy environments, spaces for recreation and physical activity, human security, inclusive urbanization, urban infrastructure, and violence.

The plan calls on countries, during 2012–2021, to:

  • Develop urban policies
  • Orient urban health services toward health promotion and expanded coverage
  • Strengthen institutional capacity to promote health and participatory governance strategies
  • Reinforce healthy urban development networks at the national and regional levels
  • Increase awareness, knowledge, and the capacity to respond to urban health challenges.

Nearly 31 percent of the urban population in the Americas lives in irregular settlements resulting from rapid and unplanned population growth. This urban growth has produced overcrowding and a lack of basic health and sanitation services, producing conditions favorable for the spread of infectious vector-borne and neglected diseases.

The recent WHO Global Status Report on noncommunicable diseases also links unplanned urbanization to increased exposure to air pollutants, more sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diet, and lower levels of physical activity, leading to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory illness, and other noncommunicable diseases.

Within the framework of the Strategy and Plan of Health, PAHO/WHO will support health ministers in efforts to:

  • Strengthen their leadership role in promoting health in the context of urbanization
  • Adjust health services to meet the specific needs of urban populations
  • Strengthen institutional capacity to implement an urban health approach
  • Advocate for a common goal and shared responsibility.

The PAHO Directing Council meets each year to set priorities for regional cooperation in health and to guide PAHO/WHO’s technical cooperation programs in its Member States.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world’s oldest international public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the people of the Americas and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).


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