Future of the Environment

Anti-vaccine sentiment one of 10 biggest health threats, says WHO

A woman wearing a protective mask has her picture taken just after a flag-raising ceremony amid heavy smog at the Tiananmen Square, after the city issued its first ever "red alert" for air pollution, in Beijing December 9, 2015.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj - GF10000259384

A woman wearing a protective mask has her picture Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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The global population faces diverse health challenges, ranging from serious virus outbreaks and drug-resistant bacteria, to the increase in non-communicable diseases like obesity and heart disease.

While some parts of the world have limited access to vaccines, patients in other regions are reluctant to use them, partly because of the anti-vaccine movement.

Another area of huge concern is the toll that pollution and climate change take on health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified 10 of the biggest threats to world health in 2019. WHO policymakers have devised a new 5-year strategic plan to address these problems, which aims to improve the lives of up to 3 billion people worldwide.

The following 10 major dangers are among the most serious health threats facing the world.

Air pollution and climate change

Each day, approximately 90% of the world’s population breathes polluted air, which contains microscopic particles that penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems. These pollutants damage the lungs, heart and brain and result in 7 million premature deaths each year from cancer, stroke, heart and lung conditions. The vast majority of pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income nations.

Burning fossil fuels is a major cause of pollution, especially in industrializing nations, and a catalyst for manmade climate change.

Noncommunicable diseases

Approximately 41 million people die of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. That’s more than 70% of all worldwide deaths. Incidents of these diseases are dramatically higher in low and middle-income countries than wealthier nations, due to a combination of high tobacco and alcohol use, polluted air, unhealthy diet and little exercise.

Global influenza pandemic

According to the WHO, anticipating the next influenza pandemic is about “when” it strikes, not “if” it strikes. Although influenza may not be considered a serious threat by some, seasonal influenza kills up to 650,000 people each year. The global spread of influenza viruses is monitored, but the defense system relies on the effectiveness of emergency response around the world.

Fragile and vulnerable settings

More than a fifth of the world’s population live with protracted drought, famine, conflict or mass displacement as part of their daily life. People living in fragile settings exist in most world regions, often with no access to basic healthcare.

Antimicrobial resistance

The development of antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarial medicines have helped suppress serious infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis. But the overuse of antimicrobials in people, animals used in food production, and the environment, has allowed bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi to develop a resistance to the drugs. As well as allowing infections to reassert themselves, antimicrobial resistance could also compromise surgery and procedures like chemotherapy.

Ebola and other high-threat pathogens

Deadly pathogens like the Zika virus or Ebola outbreaks spread quickly and can have devastating consequences. Outbreaks in rural areas can quickly reach densely populated urban areas, which require different methods of containing the spread and treating those infected. The WHO has devised a list of priority diseases and pathogens that pose the most serious risk to human life due to their epidemic potential.

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Weak primary healthcare

Doctors, community nurses, local clinic staff or other health professionals are usually a patient’s primary care providers. Primary healthcare often meets most of a patient’s needs throughout their life.

A strong national healthcare system has its roots in establishing comprehensive, affordable, basic health provision. But in some low and middle-income countries a lack of resources can leave patients with limited or no access to primary care, which makes them vulnerable to numerous health risks.

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccines are one of the most effective and cost-effective weapons in the fight against infectious diseases, preventing 2 to 3 million deaths each year. However, some countries that have all but eliminated diseases like measles have seen a resurgence due to people’s reluctance to vaccinate. This could be due to complacency about the threat of a specific disease, inconvenience in accessing vaccine provisions or a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of immunizations.

Dengue fever

Spread by mosquito bite, dengue fever is a growing threat throughout the rainy season in countries like Bangladesh and India. Once contracted, dengue’s flu-like symptoms kill up to 20% of those with severe cases. Once associated only with tropical climates, dengue fever is now spreading to more temperate climates.


Great strides have been made bringing HIV under control and antiretroviral drugs have enabled many people with the disease to lead normal lives. But in some parts of the world, the epidemic is still in full flow.

Groups of infected people are often excluded from health service provision and currently HIV/AIDS kills almost a million people each year.

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Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentAgriculture, Food and BeverageGlobal HealthHealth and Healthcare
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