The 10 biggest global health threats in 2019, according to the World Health Organization


The World Health Organization has released a list of 10 threats to global health as the agency launches its five-year strategic plan to ensure "1 billion more people benefit from access to universal health coverage, 1 billion more people are protected from health emergencies and 1 billion more people enjoy better health and well-being."

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To reach the goals of the 13th General Programme of Work, WHO and its health partners will need to address the following 10 issues:

Climate change and air pollution

In 2019, air pollution is the “greatest environmental risk to health,” according to WHO. Researchers believe microscopic pollutants in the air are responsible for killing 7 million people prematurely every year from diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. The act of burning fossil fuels is considered the primary source of air pollution, and it’s a significant contributor to climate change. According to WHO, “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.” The agency, along with the United Nations, aims to strengthen global climate action in 2019.

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Noncommunicable diseases

Such diseases (diabetes, heart disease or cancer) are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s deaths. Some of the leading risk factors of noncommunicable diseases include tobacco use, physical inactivity and binge drinking, among others — all of which also exacerbate mental health issues. One way WHO is hoping to help: Work with governments to hit a target of reducing physical inactivity by 15 percent by 2030.

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The global influenza pandemic

WHO expects the world will see another influenza pandemic, but exactly when or how severe the pandemic will be is unknown. Researchers will continue to monitor virus behavior and circulation through 153 institutions in 114 countries and recommend which strains should be included in the annual flu vaccine.

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The world’s fragile and vulnerable settings

Conflict, drought, displacement, famine and other obstacles leave more than 1.6 billion people — or 22 percent of the world’s population — without access to basic care. WHO researchers hope to continue to work in affected countries to both detect and respond to challenges.

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Antimicrobial resistance

While drugs like antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials are considered “some of modern medicine’s greatest successes,” antimicrobial resistance is a “growing threat. Such resistance is a result of “overuse of antimicrobials in people, but also in animals” used for food production or the environment. Resistance “threatens to send us back to a time when we were unable to easily treat infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis. The inability to prevent infections could seriously compromise surgery and procedures such as chemotherapy,” according to WHO. The agency is working on a global action plan to tackle the issue and encourage prudent use of antimicrobials.

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Ebola and other high-threat pathogens

Following two separate Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018, world public health experts urged WHO to address the growing challenges of tackling outbreaks and health emergencies in urban areas” and called for the agency to make 2019 a “(y)ear of action on preparedness for health emergencies.”

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Weak or inadequate primary health care

Many countries still do not have adequate primary health care facilities, according to WHO. To achieve universal health coverage, strong primary health care is a must. WHO hopes to continue strengthening primary care around the globe.

The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate

With the improvement of “global coverage of vaccinations,” WHO researchers believe 1.5 million vaccine-preventable deaths could be avoided annually. Vaccines currently prevent 2 million to 3 million deaths per year. “Complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence” are among some of the top reasons people choose not to vaccinate, but health workers are urged to provide trusted, credible information to eradicate hesitation.

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The mosquito-borne disease, which presents flu-like symptoms and is a growing problem in Bangladesh and India, can kill up to 20 percent of those infected with severe dengue. An estimated 40 percent of the world is at risk of dengue fever. WHO is working to reduce deaths by 50 percent by 2020 through its Dengue prevention and control strategy.

HIV epidemic

Nearly 1 million people still die each year due to HIV/AIDS, and young girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa are at particularly high risk. WHO hopes to work alongside countries to introduce self-testing in companies and organizations.

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