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What happens when children live in unhealthy environments?

Healthy environments for children: facts and figures

Over five million children per year die from illnesses and other conditions caused by the environments in which they live, learn and play.

Around two million children under five die every year from acute respiratory infections, the largest killer of young children. These infections are aggravated by environmental hazards such as indoor air pollution.

The second most common cause of child deaths is diarrhoea, estimated to be responsible for 12 % of the child deaths under five years of age in developing countries - and a total of 1.3 million deaths each year. Diarrhoea may result from a variety of different causes. It is frequently a result of the child consuming pathogens or toxins from dirty hands or through contaminated water or food.

  • Malaria kills approximately one million children per year, many of them under five and most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Dengue haemorrhagic fever kills an estimated 10,000 children per year, while Japanese encephalitis kills an estimated 8,000 children per year (90% of whom are under five).

The most common, and most serious vector borne diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes that breed in water close to, or within, the home.

  • In developing countries, substances associated with poisoning include pesticides, carbon monoxide (released from faulty stoves), or kerosene used as household fuel.
  • In the USA poisoning is the fifth leading cause of accidental death in children under six years of age, principally from ingestion of drugs, antidepressants, analgesics, and household products such as drain cleaners.
  • Within the European Union poisoning accounts for two per cent of all injury deaths in children.

About 50,000 children, aged 0-14 years old, die every year as a result of unintentional poisoning.

  • The leading causes of death from unintentional injury among children are road traffic injuries (21% of such for this age group) and drowning (19%).
  • The vast majority of unintentional injuries among children occurs in low and middle-income countries: children in the African, South-East Asian and Western Pacific regions account for 80% of all children’s deaths from unintentional injuries.

In 2001, an estimated 685,000 children under the age of 15 were killed by unintentional injuries including those resulting from road traffic accidents, falls, burns and cases of drownings. Worldwide approximately 20% of deaths due to such injuries occur in children under 15 years old and they are among the ten leading causes of death for this age group.

What can we do to tackle the environmental risks to our children?

The Healthy Environments for Children Alliance (HECA) promotes a number of simple, low-cost, effective and sustainable measures to combat the environmental risks to our children. While a fuller listing of what is possible is available on the HECA website – www.who.int/heca/en – below is a sample of simple measures which can be taken at home or in schools.

Household water security
Safe water storage at home – and treatment of water in the home when its quality is in doubt - reduces water contamination and leads to proven health benefits.

Hygiene and sanitation
Washing hands with soap before food preparation, before meals and after defecating significantly reduces the risk of diarrhoeal disease.

Follow the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food to reduce the risk of foodborne disease: keep clean; separate raw and cooked; cook thoroughly; keep food at safe temperatures; and use safe water and raw materials.

Air pollution
Good ventilation in the home, clean fuels and improved cooking stoves decrease indoor air pollution and the exacerbation and development of acute respiratory infections.

Disease vectors
As children usually go to bed earlier than adults at the time mosquitoes become active, the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and the screening of windows, doors and eaves provide a very effective means of protecting them against malaria.

Chemical hazards
Ensure safe storage, packaging, use and clear labelling of cleaners, fuels, solvents, pesticides and other chemicals used at home and in schools.

Unintentional injuries
Advocate for safer roads and organized traffic


Sources: US Department of Health; The World Health Organization


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