WHO Names Top 10 Health Risks

By Rosenthal, Anne M. | Environmental Health Perspectives, July 2003 | Go to article overview

WHO Names Top 10 Health Risks


Rosenthal, Anne M., Environmental Health Perspectives


Government action, in concert with individual action, can increase healthy life expectancy by 5-10 years worldwide, concludes The World Health Report 2002: Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life. The report summarizes one of the largest research projects ever undertaken by the World Health Organization (WHO), and identifies the 10 greatest risks to human health worldwide.

Twenty-five risks were initially ranked based on lost healthy life years. According to report coauthor Anthony Rodgers, codirector of the Clinical Trials Research Unit at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, this captures within a single measurement burden not just from premature death but also from life lived with disability. So although one of the foremost risks, iron deficiency, doesn't cause as many deaths as some other risks examined, its overall health impact puts it in the top 10.

"These types of reports give you a good handle on both chronic and infectious disease prevention," says George Rutherford, interim director of the Institute for Global Health, operated jointly by the University of California (UC), San Francisco, and UC Berkeley. He says the report will help health care providers to focus on primary prevention by identifying the initial causes of disease.

The report shows that surprisingly few risks cause 40% of global deaths and disease. The top 10 risks fall into two categories. Five of them--being underweight, unsafe sex, iron deficiency, indoor smoke from solid fuels, and unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene--mainly affect populations in developing countries. The other five--high blood pressure, tobacco consumption, alcohol consumption, high cholesterol, and obesity--can be grouped as contributors to heart disease and stroke, which kill more than 12 million people worldwide each year.

Until recently, cardiovascular diseases had been considered largely the encumbrance of the developed world. However, this study reveals that with an influx into developing nations of Western lifestyle risks--for example, alcohol consumption and increased use of processed foods--have come rapidly increasing rates of cardiovascular-related risks, resulting in a double burden of infectious and noninfectious disease.

Stark contrasts between the poor and rich are underlined by conclusions in the report related to being underweight, which is prevalent in developing nations, and obesity, which is common in industrialized countries. About 170 million children in poor countries, lacking sufficient food or compromised by chronic disease, are underweight, with 3.4 million dying from this cause in the year 2000. Meanwhile, more than 300 million adults worldwide are clinically obese (defined by the WHO as having a body mass index of at least 30 kilograms per square meter), with obesity-related deaths at one-half million in 2002 in North America and Western Europe. …

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