Poverty, the number one killer worldwide, warns UN

by Thalif Deen

New York, 4 Apr 2001 (IPS) - At the dawn of the new millennium, poverty is likely to remain the number one killer worldwide, the United Nations said in a study released Wednesday.

Tracing the link between health and poverty, the study says: “Poverty is an important reason that babies are not vaccinated, clean water and sanitation are not provided, drugs and other treatments are unavailable, and mothers die in childbirth.”

Currently, there are about 1.2 billion people living below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day, and almost 3.0 billion on less than two dollars per day, compared with a global population of over 6.0 billion people, according to World Bank figures.

The UN study also says that a disproportionate burden of disease will continue to be borne by disadvantaged or marginalised women, especially those living in environmentally degraded or ecologically vulnerable areas, in zones of conflict or violence, or compelled to migrate for economic or other reasons. As a result, the feminisation of poverty will be another major threat to social and economic development.

Many health problems will continue to be exacerbated by pollution, noise, crowding, inadequate water and sanitation, improper waste disposal, chemical contamination, poisonings and physical hazards associated with the growth of densely populated cities.

Titled, ‘Health and Sustainable Development’, the study will go before the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets on 30 April. The Commission is holding a three-day organisational session in preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Earth Summit II) scheduled to take place in South Africa in late 2002.

The report, which focuses specifically on health, points out that despite undoubted advances in many areas, poor health continues to be a constraint on development efforts.

In some cases, the process of development itself is creating conditions where - as a result of economic, political and social upheaval, environmental degradation, and uneven development or increasing inequities - human health suffers.

Over the past decade, the report admits, there have been steady gains in global health: average life expectancy has increased, infant and child mortality rates have declined, and the proportion of underweight and stunted children have decreased.

In developing countries, the percentage of people with life expectancy at birth below 60 declined - from 38% to 19% during 1990-1999. The proportion of people without access to improved water supply fell from 21% to 18% over the past decade.

At the same time, many infectious diseases have receded, owing to improved sanitation, nutrition, drugs and vaccines. The annual incidence of polio, for example, has fallen from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1988 (the start of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative) to an estimated maximum of 20,000 in 1999.

The number of polio-infected countries fell from 125 to 30 over that period; the remaining infected countries are in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

But despite these advances, the report says, there are huge gaps and constraints in the field of human health. More than 200 million people live in countries with an average life expectancy of less than 45 years. The average life expectancy at birth in 1999 was 49.2 years in the world’s 48 poorest countries, compared to 61.4 for all developing countries, and 75.2 for industrial nations.

In many sub-Saharan African countries, life expectancy fell during the 1990s owing to the impact of HIV/AIDS. Other major setbacks in health gains occurred in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the political and economic transition has been accompanied by decreases in life expectancy of five years for males. In some of the poorest countries of the world, one in five children still fails to reach his or her fifth birthday, mainly owing to infectious diseases related to the environment.

More than 20 million women continue to experience ill health each year as a result of pregnancy.

According to the report, six major diseases currently cause 90% of the deaths from communicable diseases: AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases, and measles.

HIV/AIDS, which has reversed the rising life expectancies of the 1990s, is the fastest growing health threat to development today and a potential risk to security.

More than 12 million Africans have died of AIDS (over two million in a single year), and 13.2 million have been orphaned, due to HIV/AIDS.

Several hundred million people continue to be infected annually with malaria, which results in almost 300 million clinical cases worldwide each year, and over one million deaths.

“Health has become a more central concern in development, both as a contributor to, and an indicator of, sustainable development. While health is a value in its own right, it is also key to productivity,” the report concludes.

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