In an age punctuated by threats like climate change, disease and geopolitical crises, it’s alarming to think one of the biggest health risks facing humanity is people who refuse vaccines.
Yeah, things are pretty great when our species is endangered by the rejection of medicine itself.
Add to that the fact we are more likely to commit suicide than be killed in conflict and more likely to die from obesity than from starvation and it turns out that our biggest risk is, well, ourselves.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed this through its list of the top ten health threats facing the world in 2019, with “vaccine hesitancy” listed among deadly diseases and pathogens as one of the more prominent health risks facing humanity.
Shockingly, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows the percentage of Americans who avoid vaccinations has quadrupled since 2001.
But this isn’t one of those instances where we get to point and laugh at our uncivilised American neighbours – Australia has one of the largest anti-vaccination movements in the world.
Around 40,000 Australian children remain unvaccinated despite the government spending $14 million on a free immunisation program. Kids who don’t get vaccinated not only risk getting preventable diseases, but also risk passing it on to other children yet to be immunised.
We live in the healthiest era in human history. Life expectancy is at an all-time high, polio is all but eliminated and child mortality rates are at a historic low.
But despite humanity’s remarkable medical achievements, we still face several major global health issues – from diseases and influenza to climate change and obesity.
Here is what the WHO identifies as the ten most significant health issues humanity will face in 2019.
Air pollution and climate change
The WHO considers air pollution to be the greatest environmental risk to human health. They cite the fact that nine out of ten people breathe polluted air daily. Polluted air penetrates the respiratory and circulatory systems and damages the lungs, heart and brain. It can cause cancer, strokes, heart and lung diseases.
Noncommunicable diseases refer to health problems such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. These kinds of diseases are responsible for 70 per cent of global deaths, including 15 million people between the age of 30 and 69. The rise of these diseases can be partially attributed to tobacco use, physical inactivity, alcohol, unhealthy diets and pollution.
Global influenza pandemic
The WHO believes the world will face another worldwide bout of influenza, though they are unsure of how severe it will be. The treatment of influenza largely relies on any individual country’s health and emergency preparation and responsiveness.
Fragile and vulnerable settings
This one is pretty obvious. Living in places of crisis such as famine, drought, war and displacement brings with it an obvious lack of proper health services. This issue is something that affects 1.6 billion people – around 22 per cent of the world’s population.
Antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials have been one of the greatest developments of the modern world, but the WHO says the effectiveness of these drugs is declining. Bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi are learning to resist these treatments, and we need to figure out a way to evolve before we are unable to continue preventing these infections.
Ebola and other high-threat pathogens
In 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo we saw the damage and hysteria caused by an Ebola outbreak. The WHO calls for better responsiveness and treatment for outbreaks in rural or conflict-affected areas of the world.
Weak primary health care
We Australians are pretty lucky in that we have an excellent healthcare system. It is affordable, the facilities are high quality and treatment is comprehensive and easily accessed in most parts of the country. Many countries throughout the world don’t have such adequate facilities and the WHO is striving to change this.
As mentioned earlier, vaccine hesitancy refers to “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines”. This practice threatens to undo the hard work done by vaccinating people in the first place – it currently prevents two to three million deaths per year, but that number would double if anti-vaxxers embraced medical help.
Dengue is a disease born from mosquitoes that causes flu-like symptoms and can be lethal, particularly for children. At the moment it is pretty much restricted to the rainy season in countries like Bangladesh and India, but there are about 390 million infections every year. WHO aims to reduce Dengue-related deaths by 50 per cent by 2020.
The HIV epidemic continues to spread regardless of better testing, antiretrovirals and preventative measures. Around a million people die every year of HIV/AIDS, with a total death toll of roughly 35 million people. The WHO hopes to decrease instances of HIV by reaching people most affected including sex workers, people in prison, gay and bisexual men, and young girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
You can find out more by reading the WHO’s new five-year strategic plan, The 13th general programme of work.