Environmental hazards kill five million children a yearBMJ 2003; 326 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7393.782 (Published 12 April 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:782
The World Health Organization has called for concerted action to reduce environmental hazards to children, which, the agency says, claim more than five million lives a year among the under 14s.
The WHO's director general, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, speaking at the World Health Day launch on Monday in New Delhi, India, called on the United Nations, member states, and non—governmental organisations to take more effective and visible action to reduce deaths among children caused by environmental hazards.
“The biggest threats to children's health lurk in the very places that should be safest—home, school, and community. It is a little known but devastating fact that every year over five million children aged 0 to 14 die, mainly in the developing world, from diseases related to their environments—the places where they live, learn, and play,” said Dr Brundtland.
“These deaths can be prevented. We know what to do. We have developed strategies to combat these threats to children's health. And yet we must do more to ensure that they are implemented widely, at global, national, and local levels.”
WHO believes that as much as a third of the world's total burden of disease is caused by environmental factors. Children under 5, who comprise only 10% of the world population, currently bear 40% of the global disease burden.
Dr Brundtland identified acute respiratory infections as the number one killer of children, cutting short two million lives each year. She said indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with dirty household fuels was a major factor in respiratory infections, as was second hand tobacco smoke.
Diarrhoeal diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and poor quality water killed 1.3 million children annually, and malaria, the third biggest killer among children, took one million lives a year, mostly in sub—Saharan Africa. Many accidental deaths such as drowning, poisoning, and pedestrian traffic deaths could also be linked to the environments that children grow up in, said Dr Brundtland.
She urged governments, charities, and researchers to participate in the programmes of the Healthy Environment for Children Alliance, which was founded last September at the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Widespread implementation of simple measures such as better ventilation in the home, mosquito nets in malarial areas, and better traffic regulation would bring dramatic improvements, WHO believes.
“Every child has the right to grow up in a healthy home, school, and community,” said Dr Brundtland. “The future development of our children—and of their world—depends on their enjoying good health now.”
The United Nations' secretary general, Kofi Annan, said children were more vulnerable than adults to environmental hazards because they “consume more food, air, and water than adults do in proportion to their body weight—and because they possess more natural curiosity but less knowledge and experience.”