World Health Organization (WHO)
Regional Office for the Western Pacific
P.O. Box 2932
100 Manila
Fax: +63-2 521 1036
Tel: +63-2 528 8001

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South Asians face health risk in urban UK
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WHO calls for stronger cities to
help prevent Asian health crisis
By Ruth Maguire

1 January 2005: The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the health of city dwellers in the western Pacific region will suffer dramatically unless urgent measures are taken now to alleviate worsening environmental conditions. The western Pacific region includes countries such as Australia, Cambodia, China, Fiji, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mongolia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Viet Nam.

According to the WHO, many urban areas are growing in population so fast that economies, services and infrastructures cannot cope. This will result not only in outbreaks of disease, but also in an upsurge in crime, violence, environmental degradation, pollution, poverty and unhealthy lifestyles.

Urban areas worldwide are gaining an estimated 67 million people a year, or about 1.3 million every week. By 2030, about five billion people are expected to live in cities – 60 per cent of the projected global population of 8.3 billion.

Highlighting the growing problems, Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for western Pacific, said the urban poor are more vulnerable to poor health and environmental hazards because they are more likely than others to lack adequate housing, sanitation and other basic services.

About 2.3 billion people worldwide suffer from diseases linked to water problems, such as diarrhoea, schistosomiasis, trachoma, ascariasis and hookworm. Water-related diseases kill millions of people each year, preventing millions more from leading healthy lives, and undermining development efforts.

WHO estimates that 1.5 billion urban dwellers face levels of outdoor air pollution that are above the maximum recommended limits. In Asia - with half of the world's city dwellers - more than 500,000 people die every year from diseases related to air pollution. About half a million deaths each year globally can be attributed to particulate matter and sulphur dioxide in outdoor air. Bringing suspended particulate matter down to safe levels could save between 300,000 and 700,000 lives annually, said WHO.

Dr Omi noted that shifting authority from central governments to municipalities can help make policies, plans and actions more responsive, especially to the plight of the urban poor. "Decentralization, accompanied by empowerment of people to take action, can be a potent force for vitalizing communities," he said. "There is no longer a need to wait for central government to take action. People and their leaders can take on tasks on their own."

In response to this growing problem, WHO in 1994 created the Healthy Cities initiative to improve health and the quality of life in urban areas. The initiative has since turned into a regional movement with some 100 cities actively involved.

Related report: More than one billion people call urban slums their home

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