Health and environment in the age of sustainable development

26 May 2017

Geneva, 26 May 2017 (PAHO/WHO)- Health and the environment in the age of sustainable development was the topic of one of the technical sessions held by WHO as part of the World Health Assembly. The session examined the steps needed to secure greater political commitment to action in this area.

The Director-General of WHO, Margaret Chan, called for joining with other sectors to mitigate environmental effects on health. "We need to work with other partners to ensure that they have policies in place and do the right thing," she said. "The world is losing its capacity to maintain human health...What we can do as a global community is to strike the right balance," she explained.


Approximately 12.6 million deaths a year are due to preventable environmental health risks, which account for 23% of the global disease burden. This includes a large and growing burden of noncommunicable diseases caused, among other factors, by air pollution and the unsustainable urbanization, as well as the burden associated with ongoing infectious disease risks related to water, sanitation, and vectors, and with the emerging risks created by climate change.

María Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, detailed additional statistics describing the impact of environmental problems on health, and listed some possible measures to address these problems. As an example, she cited the area of urban health. Urban planning, she said, can address various issues that impact health (transportation, green spaces, waste management, air-pollution reduction). Treaties on the environment, she noted, can constitute public health treaties if they are well implemented, and can also exert pressure on governments.

Neira emphasized that the Sustainable Development Goals represent an opportunity to work with other sectors in improving health services. She also pointed out that partnerships and disease prevention activities in the area of primary care can provide opportunities for change.

In this connection, David Morin, Director General of the Safe Environments Directorate (SED) at Canada's Health Ministry, spoke of his country's experience with chemicals management, which included attention to institutional capacity, knowledge, leadership, and risk reduction strategy.

Uruguay's Minister of Health, Jorge Basso, indicated that problems linked to the environment are being addressed in his country from a comprehensive perspective, one that involves incorporating health in all policies. Work is also under way on a project designed to foster a greater number of productive and healthy communities. He underlined that a climate change cabinet formed by President Tabaré Vázquez is already in operation, bringing together institutions in the areas of Environment, Industry, Economy, and Health to collaborate on new ways to reduce risks to the environment.

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