Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for urgent action to promote literacy around the world, noting the implications of not being able to read on human health and efforts to access vital prevention, treatment and support services.
In his message for International Literacy Day, which is observed on 8 September, Mr. Ban notes that one in five adults – some 774 million – is illiterate, and thus lives with no access to the vast global store of written communication.
In addition, 75 million children are not in school and millions more young people leave school without a level of literacy adequate for productive and active participation in society.
“These would be devastating numbers at any time, for individuals and societies alike; that they occur in the context of today’s information society should drive home the urgency of efforts to promote literacy throughout the world,” he stresses.
Noting this year’s theme of “Literacy and health,” Mr. Ban states that illiteracy has a direct impact on human health.
“It prevents people from being able to read the instructions on a medicine bottle. It means that people are less likely to know facts about AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases,” he says.
“And because two thirds of those who are illiterate are women and girls, who often bear the burden of caring for sick members of their families, it means that they will be less likely to know about prevention and support services, and how to use life-saving medicines and other treatments,” he adds.
Literacy is “indispensable” for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targeting maternal health and combating HIV and malaria, and for addressing some of the world’s most important public health challenges, the Secretary-General notes, calling for well-defined policies and increased investment to increase literacy skills.
The head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adds that today’s gravest health concerns cannot be adequately addressed unless literacy finds a central place in public health policies and strategies.
“An illiterate person is simply more vulnerable to ill-health, and less likely to seek medical help for themselves, their family or their community,” Director General Koichiro Matsuura says in his message to mark the Day.
He notes that nearly ten million children die before reaching the age of five, most often of preventable infectious diseases, and it is children of the poor who are less likely to be treated for serious illness.
In addition, the risk of contracting malaria – which claims over one million lives each year – is increased significantly amongst illiterate populations, with literacy levels having a direct impact on health-seeking behaviours.
“It is essential for countries to show greater leadership and to increase spending on literacy, and for donors to give it a higher profile in their aid portfolio,” he states, adding that there is also an urgent need to scale up youth and adult learning programmes.