Healthier Environments Could Halve Global Disease – ‘Nature Summit’ Needed to Highlight Linkages
Health experts have called on global leaders to tackle environmental issues affecting health and health systems.

A paradigm shift towards health systems and societies that emphasize health promotion, disease prevention and environmental protection could prevent and reduce 50% of the global disease burden worldwide, experts at an informal session on the margins of the 74th World Health Assembly  said on Thursday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inextricable relationships between environments and health while revealing health systems’ weaknesses, according to WHO director-general  Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the event, Safe Societies and Environments for Health: The Path to Build Forward Better, Healthier and Greener.   

World leaders should hold a “Nature Summit” that would focus heads of state more squarely on delicate relationships between health, climaste and environment – and the “planetary” crisis facing ecosystems, said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in an apperance at the WHO forum. 

“There’s evidence that the more we fragment nature, the more we encroach into nature, the more we push biodiversity stress, by encroaching and destroying, then the greater likelihood of human pathogens developing out of contact with wildlife and wild diseases,“ said Andersen. 

Maria Neira, WHO director, Environment, Climate Change and Health shared Andersen’s sentiments: “We need to stop this war we are having with nature. We need to recover our relationship as it is the only way towards a safer world that is green and healthy.”

Maria Neira, WHO director, Environment, Climate Change and Health

The events coincided with a landmark decision by a court in the Netherlands, against the multinational fossil fuel giant Royal Dutch Shell – which was cheered by WHO climate and health advocates such as Neira.

The court in The Hague ordered Shell to reduce it’s CO2 emissions by 45% within the next 10 years in its response to a legal suit by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organizations.  The ruling has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the fossil fuel industry worldwide – opening up the possibility of liability claims and suits in other countries against fossil fuel companies for the damage that they are wreaking on the health of the planet and its people.

WHO’s Green Manifesto

In May 2019, the 72nd WHA adopted a Global Strategy on Health, Environment and Climate Change. The WHO strategy aims to “provide a vision and way forward on how the world and its health community need to respond to environmental health risks and challenges up to 2030, and to ensure safe, enabling and equitable environments for health by transforming our way of living, working, producing, consuming and governing.”

The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to rebuild health systems while also tackling environmental issues affecting health, said Tedros at the session, while also lamenting the lack of sufficient investment today. . 

For instance, global health budgets allocate only 3% to addressing preventable causes of disease and to promoting and enabling healthier environments and lifestyle choices. Increased investment could reduce global disease burdens by half, Tedros said, and this would greatly benefit individuals, families, communities and nations.

That is despite the fact that  “preparation is not just better than cure — it’s cheaper”, he said. 

In fact, an investment of $US 1 per person per year in more disease prevention and health promotion could save 8.2 million lives and US$ 350 billion by 2023, Tedros said in his opening WHA remarks on Monday.

On Thursday he again emphasised the need for more investment. “For every dollar invested in basic sanitation, there is a return of $5.50 in terms of reduced waterborne disease … which is still one of the largest killers of children.”

“Safer air, food and roads, better nutrition, and reduced injuries and violence will save lives. But we’ll also save money by preventing health care costs and [by] contributing to employment, productivity, and inclusive economic growth. Healthy populations are also more resilient populations.”

WHO Director-General  Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

In May 2020, after the COVID pandemic laid bare the underlying vulnerabilities of global health, social and environmental systems, WHO issued a Green Manifesto for healthy and green recovery with several 80 action points for so-called “building back better.”

The manifesto also lists opportunities for actions to enhance the WHO global strategy, which is likewise embedded in WHO’s 2019-2023 workplan – encouraging more cross-sectoral actions on unhealthy urban environments, lifestyles, poor diets and unsustainable food systems – areas where the worst risks often hit hardest on the poor – exacerbating existing social inequalities. 

A Healthy Planet Makes Healthier People

That has been all the more vividly illustrated during the COVID pandemic, in which access to clean water and sanitation, clean air, and decent urban housing conditions have all been understood as critical to reducing disease risks and disease transmission. 

UNEP Director Andersen said the argument for climate action is at an “historic crossroads” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic-related policies thus need to also address climate, biodiversity, nature and pollution, because otherwise “We would just be in a systematic loop … We have been taking nature for granted.”

Although the world has for far too long assumed that climates and environments would remain stable, she said, “A healthy planet is a precondition for healthy lives.”

Referring to research pointing to vast potential losses of genetically diverse animal and plant species over the coming years, Andersen also called for more research into food systems. “Why does this affect us? Because nature is a finely-tuned ecosystem where each relies on the other. And that is what produces the food, the water, the air” that humankind relies upon for life and livelihoods.

Education to Promote Environmental Awareness

Along with high-level efforts like a summit, education also is a critical tool to raise environmental awareness and contribute to improved health, according to  Desmond Appiah, resilience and sustainability advisor in the city of Accra, Ghana. 

Appiah said there is a need to work across sectors and with communities from the ground up to address water, waste, sanitation and air pollution issues critical in developing and building healthy cities. For example, he said the city government and its partners in a WHO and UNEP co-sponsored “Urban Health Initiative,” visits local churches, faith-based organisations to educate them on  air pollution’s health impacts as well as contributing factors, from waste-burning to motor traffic and the dearth of walkable green spaces.  In line with those efforts, Accra in 2018 was also the first city in Africa to join the BreatheLife initiative, dedicated to building awareness and more local action around linked, health, environment and climate.   

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