In Brief

What are the biggest global health risks in 2019?

From climate change to superbugs, the WHO warns unless threats are addressed, millions of lives will be in jeopardy

Climate change, superbugs and anti-vaccination campaigns are among the top ten biggest threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organisation.

Topping this year's list of the greatest environmental risk to health is air pollution and climate change.

Nine out of ten people now breath polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year, says WHO.

Around 90% of these deaths are in low and middle-income countries, with high volumes of emissions from industry, transport and agriculture, as well as dirty cookstoves and fuels in homes. 

Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people. 85% of premature deaths in people aged 35 to 69 are in low and middle-income countries.

The growing anti-vaccination movement has also made it onto the list, with the health organisation claiming some people’s reluctance or refusal to vaccinate threatens to reverse progress made against a host of preventable diseases.

“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease — it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” WHO said in a statement.

Driven by complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines and lack of confidence, “the effects of what WHO called “vaccine hesitancy” are already significant” says CBS News.

For example, cases of measles have surged 30% worldwide in recent years, despite an effective vaccine that can prevent it. CBS says that in the US around 100,000 children have not been vaccinated against any of the 14 potentially serious diseases for which vaccines are recommended, according to a report released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One century after the 1918 flu pandemic killed millions of people around the globe, the WHO also warns of the dangers of a new global influenza pandemic.

The health body is unsure when and how the epidemic will hit the global population, but “the various influenza viruses are being constantly monitored to detect any signs of a pandemic”, says The Quint.

Linked to this is the rise in drug-resistant superbugs, “a dark side to the incredible success of antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials”, says CNN.

Overuse of such treatments means that “antimicrobial resistance - the ability of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi to resist these medicines - threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis”, warns the WHO.

About 1.6 million people die each year from tuberculosis, and many patients suffer because antibiotics no longer work effectively.

The agency says it is working on a plan to fight antimicrobial resistance by increasing awareness, reducing infection and encouraging cautious use of such drugs.

The WHO has also highlighted the high proportion (22% or 1.6 billion) of the world’s population who live in places where protracted crises, through a combination of challenges such as drought, famine, conflict, and population displacement, and weak health services leave them without access to basic care.

The UN’s public health agency has warned that unless these threats are addressed, millions of lives will be in jeopardy.

To protect 3 billion people worldwide in 2019, the WHO has launched a new five-year-strategic plan.

This will ensure “one billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, one billion more people are protected from health emergencies and one billion more people enjoy better health and well-being”.

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