On World Day, Ban spotlights health burdens on urban populations

7 April 2010

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, so too is the poverty burden, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today on World Health Day, highlighting the need to address resulting public health challenges.

By mid-century, seven out of every 10 people will be city dwellers, up from just over 50 per cent of the global population currently.

Developing countries will experience most of this growth, Mr. Ban said in his message for the Day. “Rapid, unplanned urbanization is expanding slums and informal settlements, and municipal authorities are struggling to cope.”

He pointed to the many threats to public health posed by disparities in people’s incomes, opportunities, living conditions and access to services, such as inadequate sanitation, industrial pollution, infectious disease, crime and violence.

“To a large extent these problems lie beyond the direct control of the health sector,” the Secretary-General acknowledged. “Improving urban health therefore requires sound policies across all areas of government and awareness among all sectors of society.”

For its part, the UN is working to curb pollution and congestion, as well as improve housing and water safety, among other moves.

“Although the threats to health in cities are many, there is also reason for optimism,” Mr. Ban said, adding that both the root causes and cures – which “need not be complex or costly” – for urban health problems are known.

For its part, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) will organize a campaign called “1,000 cities, 1,000 lives,” in which urban areas will be cleaned up and roads blocked off to cars, while health champions who have made a significant impact in their cities will have a chance to tell their stories.

“In general, urban populations are better off than their rural counterparts,” Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said. People in urban areas have better access to social and health services and their life expectancies are longer.

But, she noted, cities are also concentrations of inadequate sanitation, traffic accidents and other health threats.

WHO said that cities face a triple threat: infectious diseases, which thrive when people live in crowded conditions; non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, which are on the rise due to unhealthy lifestyles; and the burdens resulting from accidents, injuries, violence and crime.

Currently, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in cities and are the second highest killer of children in the 10-14 age group.

Despite these challenges, the agency said, urban areas also bring opportunities, pointing to five actions that will boost city-dwellers’ chances of enjoying better living conditions. They are: better urban planning, improving city living conditions, ensuring participatory governance, building inclusive cities and making urban areas resilient to disasters and emergencies.

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