“Our planet, our planet, is losing its capacity to sustain human life in good health,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization warned Monday at the opening session of the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva.
“Signals about what human activities have done to the environment are becoming increasingly shrill,” said Dr. Chan, citing the latest assessment from the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in March after seven years of study.
Also in March, the World Health Organization, WHO, revised its estimates of the health effects of air pollution upwards.
In 2012, exposure to air pollution killed around seven million people worldwide, making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk, Chan said.
Environmental destruction is allowing four serious microbial diseases to emerge and spread, said Chan.
“Changes in the way humanity inhabits the planet have given the volatile microbial world multiple new opportunities to exploit. Confirmation of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea brought to four the number of severe emerging viruses that are currently circulating, including the H5N1 and H7N9 avian influenza viruses and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus.”
“For communicable diseases, one of the most alarming crises is the rise of antimicrobial resistance, which WHO documented in a report last month,” Dr. Chan told the delegates.
Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, urged delegates to endorse the first global action plan to end newborn deaths. Health officials agree that newborn deaths are preventable, yet nearly three million babies every year die within their first 28 days of life. WHO says 2.6 million babies are stillborn, and more than one million of those deaths occur during labor.
The 2014 World Cancer Report, issued by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, shows that the number of new cancer cases has reached an all-time high and is projected to continue to rise. Estimates for 2010 indicate that cancer cost the world economy nearly $1.2 trillion.
Dr. Chan warned, “Developing countries now account for around 70 percent of all cancer deaths. Many of these people die without treatment, not even pain relief.”
In her address Dr. Chan expressed her concern about the increase worldwide of childhood obesity, with numbers climbing fastest in developing countries. “As the 2014 World Health Statistics report bluntly states, ‘Our children are getting fatter,’” she said. “Parts of the world are quite literally eating themselves to death. Other parts starve.”
To gather the best possible advice on dealing with this crisis, Dr. Chan announced that she has established a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity to produce a consensus report on which approaches are likely to be most effective.
For the post-2015 agenda, Dr. Chan sees “ambitious yet feasible goals” to end preventable maternal, neonatal, and childhood deaths, eliminate a large number of the neglected tropical diseases and end the tuberculosis epidemic.