World Health Day, April 7, is an annual commemoration of the establishment of the World Health Organization (WHO). Each year, a theme is chosen that highlights a health topic that is of priority concern for WHO, and the world at large. This year, particular regard to a planet-friendly recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a continuous threat of an ever-polluted planet, and an increasing incidence of diseases, have centered the thematic focus of the commemoration on “Our Planet, Our Health”. This timely theme presents a unique opportunity for a green and healthy recovery from the pandemic putting the health of individuals and the planet at the center, and propelling a movement towards the  creation of societies and health systems focused on green, holistic well-being.

Human well-being and environmental health are intimately intertwined. The existence of clean air and water, a stable climate, and well-managed natural resources determines the extent to which people can enjoy their basic rights to life and health. Although humans have been aware of the crucial relationship between human health and the environment for millennia, there still is a tendency to separate health and environmental issues and deal with them independently. To protect the environment, promote human health, and practice sustainable development, this attitude must be changed.

In recent decades, investments in health service capacity building, environmental awareness and protection, and social and economic development have led to improvements in the health of people across the world. Despite such efforts, air pollution, water contamination, substandard waste management and lack of sanitation services, in addition to negative impacts of climate change, continue to pose environmental public health threats, especially in the developing world. These threats are further compounded by weak governance practices and potential inequities in health as well as by limited leadership, expertise, and resources in the health sector in these regions of the world.

Environmental factors are a root cause of significant burden of death, disease and disability, particularly in developing countries, with death tolls reaching nearly 35% in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. A significant proportion of that overall environmental disease burden can be attributed to the following areas of risk: clean water availability and sanitation; vector-borne diseases; poor ambient and indoor air quality; toxic substances; and global climate change. Climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 more deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress, between 2030 and 2050. The direct costs to health is estimated to be between 2-4 billion USD per year by 2030. Areas with weak health infrastructures, again developing countries, will be the least able to cope.

Our world in data:

  • 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air pollution levels exceed WHO guideline limits
  • 24% (13.7 million) of all estimated global deaths are linked to the environment
  • 3.8 million deaths occur annually as a result of exposure to indoor smoke from cooking fuels 
  • 827,000 people in low and middle income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene each year, representing 60% of total diarrheal deaths
  • Over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries, which is expected to be exacerbated in some regions as a result of climate change and population growth

Environmental health is a multisectoral problem, which requires coordination and cooperation among the many different sectors in order to improve the lives of millions of people. An intersectoral approach can be effective only if all sectors involved work together in a truly integrated partnership. This, unfortunately, is not what materializes on the ground.  A medical approach alone is not sufficient for a holistic understanding of the factors affecting human health: economic, social, and environmental components play equally important roles. Furthermore, some major shifts in local, national, regional, and global policies are required, in terms of building climate-resilient health systems, ensuring climate-sensitive international economic and trading policies, and continuing societal education on environmental health. There is also an additional need to harness the traditional knowledge that has sustained societies in harsh and marginal lands for centuries.

As such, let this year’s World Health Day theme “Our Planet, Our Health” be a powerful reminder to us all that “there is no planet B”; that we must “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, “take urgent actuon to combat climate change and its impacts”, “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of…ecosystems”.

Eleleta Surafel Abay, MD
Eleleta Surafel Abay, MD

Eleleta is a medical doctor based in Ethiopia. She holds several advisory positions in local and international global health initiatives. She has great passion for global health and health intervention-implementation research, and neglected diseases in low- and middle-income settings.


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