WHO declares loneliness a health threat, and other health stories you need to know this week

A man sits by himself at a bus stop in London.
Research suggests a quarter of older people experience social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents experience loneliness.
Image: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
  • This global round-up brings you health stories from the past fortnight.
  • Top health news: WHO makes loneliness a global health priority; A third of children exposed to water scarcity, UNICEF warns; Man receives eye transplant in world first.

1. WHO declares loneliness a pressing health threat

The World Health Organization has declared loneliness a "pressing health threat", and has launched a new commission to foster social connection as a priority in all countries.

The commission will analyze the relationship between social connection and health, and outline solutions to building social connections at scale. It will run for three years and be co-chaired by US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba.

Loneliness and social isolation is not just a problem faced by older people in high-income countries, contrary to perceptions, the organization says. A quarter of older people experience social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents experience loneliness, Research suggests, though these figures are likely to be underestimations.

Percentage of people worldwide who reported negative effects on wellbeing from feelings of loneliness in 2022, by age group
Loneliness affects all generations in all parts of the world.
Image: Statista

2. A third of children face water scarcity – UNICEF

A third of children – 739 million – worldwide already face high or very high water scarcity where they live, and climate change will worsen this, UNICEF has warned.

When combined with poor sanitation provision, water scarcity puts even more children at risk.

As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, children's mental and physical health is being damaged, the authors of the UNICEF report say.

The greatest number of exposed children are in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia regions.

The news comes as a separate report from the US shows that climate change is harming Americans physically, mentally and financially. The crisis is often hitting those who have done the least to cause it, the National Climate Assessment says.

Centre: Health and Healthcare

What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

The Global Health and Strategic Outlook 2023 highlighted that there will be an estimated shortage of 10 million healthcare workers worldwide by 2030.

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Health and Healthcare works with governments and businesses to build more resilient, efficient and equitable healthcare systems that embrace new technologies.

Learn more about our impact:

  • Global vaccine delivery: Our contribution to COVAX resulted in the delivery of over 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines and our efforts in launching Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has helped save more than 13 million lives over the past 20 years.
  • Davos Alzheimer's Collaborative: Through this collaborative initiative, we are working to accelerate progress in the discovery, testing and delivery of interventions for Alzheimer's – building a cohort of 1 million people living with the disease who provide real-world data to researchers worldwide.
  • Mental health policy: In partnership with Deloitte, we developed a comprehensive toolkit to assist lawmakers in crafting effective policies related to technology for mental health.
  • Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare: We are fostering a sustainable and equitable healthcare industry by launching innovative healthcare hubs to address ineffective spending on global health. In the Netherlands, for example, it has provided care for more than 3,000 patients with type 1 diabetes and enrolled 69 healthcare providers who supported 50,000 mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • UHC2030 Private Sector Constituency: This collaboration with 30 diverse stakeholders plays a crucial role in advocating for universal health coverage and emphasizing the private sector's potential to contribute to achieving this ambitious goal.

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3. News in brief: More health stories from around the world

A man in the US has become the first in the world to receive a whole-eye implant in a procedure surgeons hope will advance transplant medicine. The man did not regain sight in his eye, which he lost along with his nose and mouth in a work-related accident.

Healthcare facilities in poorer nations could be electrified using solar energy within five years, experts will argue at COP28 later this month. This would cost less than $5 billion and cut the death toll caused by outages or a lack of supply, Salvatore Vinci, an adviser on sustainable energy at the WHO, told The Guardian newspaper.

Working under the sun causes nearly a third of deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer, according to the WHO and the International Labour Organization. They estimate that 1.6 billion people of working age – just over a quarter – were exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation while working outdoors in 2019. In that year alone, almost 19,000 people in 183 countries died from non-melanoma skin cancer due to having worked outdoors in the sun.

Measles cases increased by 18% and deaths by 43% between 2021 and 2022, as disruptions to vaccination programmes continue to be felt, according to figures from the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The "staggering" increase in measles comes as 33 million children missed a measles dose in 2022 and global vaccination coverage remains well under the rate required to prevent communities from outbreaks. In low-income countries, where the risk of death from measles is the highest, vaccination rates are lowest – and have shown little signs of gaining ground since they slipped during the pandemic.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $23.6 million to help fund the mass production of needle-free vaccine technology. Life science company Micron Biomedical uses dissolvable microneedles on a patch-like device to deliver the vaccine. It is hoped that this technology will help increase vaccine uptake as it is simpler to transport and administer than traditional vaccines.

Genetic testing to determine the best antidepressant to use for patients with moderate to severe depression could help improve health outcomes and save healthcare systems millions. Research from the University of British Columbia shows that pharmacogenomic testing – of how a person's genes affect their medical response – could save the health care system in British Columbia alone $956 million over 20 years.

In a collective statement, 20 EU countries urged the bloc to expand tracking of extreme weather threats following over 60,000 heat deaths across Europe last summer, to help nations improve health system preparedness.

4. More on health from Agenda

Insulin was invented 100 years ago this year, and while it has revolutionized diabetes management and care, the disease is on the rise globally. Prediabetes is when blood sugar levels are elevated, but not yet high enough to be classed as diabetes. Here's what you need to know about the condition.

The World Economic Forum launched the Global Coalition for Value in Healthcare to share learning, develop best practices and guide the development of value-based health system transformation. Experts Meni Styliadou and Catherine MacLean explain what value-based healthcare is, how it works and what needs to happen to accelerate it.

More than 600,000 are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and about half of these people die. Here is some of the progress that has been made towards eliminating this preventable disease.

The UK government's expert on antimicrobial resistance, Dame Sally Davies, explains why growing antimicrobial resistance is a problem, and what it could mean for healthcare systems worldwide.

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