The World Health Organization has attributed more than one in every four deaths of children under the age of five to unhealthy environments.
Recent health reports released by the agency showed that 1.7 million children under the age of five die every year due to environmental risks such as indoor and outdoor pollution, second-degree smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene.
The first report revealed that large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged one month to five years are diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia which are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.
The second report, however, linked the top five causes of death in children under five to the environment.
According to the second report, 57,000 children under the age of five die from respiratory infections such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke while 361,000 children under same age group die as a result of diarrhoea, due to poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
“270 thousand children are said to die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution and 200 thousand deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage. 200 000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning,” it stated.
Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said in the statement that a polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children because their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.
She noted that harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer,” she said.
Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said there is a need for investing in the removal of environmental risks to health as this will result in massive health benefits and make all places safe for children.
“We need to reduce air pollution inside and outside households, improving safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene (including in health facilities where women give birth), protecting pregnant women from second-hand tobacco smoke, and building safer environments, can prevent children’s deaths and diseases”, she said.
According to the statement, climate change and high rising level of carbon dioxide have been associated with increased rates of asthma in children.
Air pollution, second-hand tobacco smoke, and indoor mould and dampness make asthma more severe in children.
Worldwide, 11–14 per cent of children aged five years and older currently report asthma symptoms and an estimated 44 per cent of these are related to environmental exposures.