Climate change, influenza and even the anti-vaccination movement have been declared as some of 2019’s biggest health threats by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The list, which focuses on issues that “demand attention” from both the WHO and health professionals, also offers solutions.
Dr. Karen Fleming, chief of the department of family and community medicine at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, told Global News the WHO’s list was inclusive, and she was happy to see the importance of primary care.
“When we look at different health systems, health systems with strong primary care have better outcomes, lower costs and fewer disparities.”
Some of the top threats of 2019
Air pollution and climate change
The WHO declared air pollution and climate change as the greatest environmental risk to health for 2019, adding nine out of 10 people around the world breathe polluted air every day.
“Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart and brain, killing 7 million people prematurely every year from diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart and lung disease,” the organization noted.
Ebola and other high-threat pathogens
Last year, two outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo spread to more than one million people in the country,” the WHO reported.
“This shows that the context in which an epidemic of a high-threat pathogen like Ebola erupts is critical – what happened in rural outbreaks in the past doesn’t always apply to densely populated urban areas or conflict-affected areas.”
Vaccine hesitancy or the anti-vaccination movement, includes people who are reluctant to vaccinate themselves or children, even if they have the resources to do so.
The WHO noted this threatens progress made towards tackling some vaccine-preventable diseases, and vaccination continues to be one of the most cost-effective ways to avoid disease.
Fleming added this is a concern because there is a resurgence of certain diseases. Measles, for example, has seen a 30 per cent increase worldwide and although not all cases can be connected to the anti-vaccination movement, the WHO stressed countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a rise again.
“We haven’t seen a lot of measles and other things for many, many years… I think we’ve gotten comfortable that these are things we don’t need to worry about anymore and partly, we’ve become complacent,” Fleming explained.
There is also a lot of misinformation about vaccines on the internet, and Fleming says anyone who wants credible information should talk to a health provider.
This mosquito-borne disease attacks people with flu-like symptoms, but can be deadly. Dengue can kill up to 20 per cent of those with severe dengue disease and this threat continues to grow, the WHO stated.
“A high number of cases occur in the rainy seasons of countries such as Bangladesh and India. Now, its season in these countries is lengthening significantly and the disease is spreading to less tropical and more temperate countries such as Nepal.”
Last year, Bangladesh saw the highest number of deaths in 20 years.
Progress made against HIV has grown over the years — more people are being tested and provided with the right medication, the WHO noted. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to kill almost one million people every year.
“Today, around 37 million worldwide live with HIV. Reaching people like sex workers, people in prison, men who have sex with men, or transgender people is hugely challenging. Often these groups are excluded from health services,” the organization added.”
Other threats include noncommunicable diseases, influenza and fragile and vulnerable settings. You can read the full list here or watch the video above.
How to have a healthier 2019
While these threats are a concern on a global scale, there are things Canadians can do every day to improve their health, Fleming said, besides eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.
Vaccination continues to be important, she said, and health-care providers should be able to assist you with the type of vaccine you need. And as we’re in the influenza season, make sure you have all your vaccinations up to date.
Finding a health-care provider should also be a focus in 2019, Fleming added. People who have go-to doctors are more likely to get screenings for diseases like cancer.
Besides eating healthy, Canadians should also focus on their tobacco and alcohol intake — rates of diabetes, cancer and heart disease continue to rise.