The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its list of the top 10 global threats to health in 2019. You can read the full report on their website, but here’s the abridged version of what you should know about the factors that endanger our well-being as a species and how authorities are working to address them.
1. Climate change
The problem: Air pollution and the melting of the polar ice caps are serious concerns for the safety of people all over the globe.
What's being done: In 2018, WHO held its first-ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, where experts explained the dangers posed by pollution, and attending countries were asked to make commitments toward acting more sustainably. Throughout 2019, the United Nations has been holding assemblies related to the environment. The culminating event, their Climate Action Summit, will take place September 23.
2. Noncommunicable disease
The problem: Diseases that are noncontagious (can’t be transferred from person to person), like heart disease, cancer, and mental illness, are collectively the greatest cause of death globally.
What's being done: WHO recommends that emphasizing physical activity is one of the best ways of approaching this issue. Last year, they released a global action plan with the goal of making people 15% less inactive by the year 2030. The United States Department of Agriculture also has a section on this subject.
The problem: The flu is an unpredictable disease, and WHO believes that it will once again reach pandemic levels, as it has four times in recent history.
What's being done: Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent the chance of falling ill yourself and thus transferring the sickness to others. Each year, WHO decides what strains of the influenza virus should be included in the vaccine to best protect people against current risks.
4. Vulnerable settings
The problem: 22% of the world’s population live in what WHO refers to as fragile and vulnerable settings. Basically, these are areas that have been subjected to long-term difficulties (like environmental and economic problems), and the people who live there lack access to basic services. Every country in the world has some parts considered vulnerable.
What's being done: WHO works directly with governments to try to help them improve the quality of healthcare, education, and other programs that are inadequate in these places. In January 2019, the Protecting Girls' Access to Education in Vulnerable Settings Act was passed, becoming U.S. law.
5. Antimicrobial resistance
The problem: Bacterial diseases that have traditionally been managed with antimicrobial medications – namely, antibiotics – can no longer be effectively treated this way because the bacteria have mutated to become immune to the chemicals.
What's being done: Reducing the use of antibiotics to times of necessity only is the first step, as these drugs have historically been overprescribed. Scientists are also looking into alternative approaches, such as physical inhibitors (rather than chemical), and phages, which are viruses that attack and incapacitate bacteria.
6. High-threat pathogens
The problem: Illnesses like Ebola, Zika, and SARS all fall into this category. These kinds of diseases are considered emergencies for which no vaccine or accepted treatment is available. They also tend to cause substantial unease among people and can lead to panic.
What’s being done: There are several potential vaccines for Ebola that are currently being tested; the same is true of the Zika virus. WHO keeps a watchlist of diseases that are considered high-threat and provides support to medical workers who are treating the sick.
7. Weak primary health care
The problem: “Primary” health care refers to the professionals you’d normally have your first contact with, like the nurses and doctors at a local clinic. In many places, though, few facilities of this kind are available.
What’s being done: In 2018, WHO held the Global Conference on Primary Health Care in Astana, Kazakhstan, where attendees signed a declaration affirming their commitment to the development of strong primary health care. The United States Agency for International Development has published a playbook for the work they plan to do in this field.
8. Vaccine hesitancy
The problem: Despite the wide range and known efficacy of vaccines, people are electing to not receive them. As a result, diseases that had been nearly eradicated are seeing a resurgence, which poses a risk to everyone on Earth.
What’s being done: An exploratory group reporting to WHO identified three main reasons why people are hesitant to vaccinate, these being complacency, inconvenience, and “lack of confidence.” WHO plans to work harder to provide the best information to healthcare providers and make more vaccines easier to access.
The problem: Dengue fever is a disease carried by mosquitoes, which infects millions and kills thousands every year. WHO estimates that 40% of the world’s population is at risk, with the largest number of cases occurring in Nepal and Bangladesh.
What’s being done: WHO has created a global strategy to address Dengue, which was enacted in 2012 with the goal of cutting the number of Dengue deaths in half by the year 2020. Their strategy focuses on controlling mosquito populations and the availability of treatments.
The problem: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infectious disease that damages a person’s immune system by attacking T cells, which fight pathogens. Some people with HIV develop a condition called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), where the immune system has been almost totally destroyed.
What’s being done: There is no cure for HIV, but medications called antiretrovirals can help control it so that it does not progress into AIDS. Some people don’t know that they have HIV and can unwittingly spread it to others, so WHO wants to work with governments to make self-testing tools widely available. You can learn more about this condition on HIV.gov.
If you’d like to get involved with helping WHO achieve their goals of making the world healthier and safer, visit the United Nations website to learn about volunteering opportunities. You can also sign up for the WHO email newsletter to stay up to date on the latest in their activities.