March 2, 2016

 By Kathleen Mannard

The Ebola epidemic in 2014 swept away people’s imaginations of the deadly disease ravaging across the “First World.” The virus spread across multiple Western African countries with over 10,000 deaths. Despite a highly rare probability of outbreak in the United States, people’s primary concerns focused on their own well being versus helping those already inflicted with the disease. Before the announcement of the potential risk of outbreak into the U.S., average Americans showed little knowledge or concern for the rising death rate.

Unfortunately, blind ignorance is commonly practiced until a problem is no longer avoidable or fear overwhelms the masses. So much of our fear resides in the present and we do not consider the long-term effects or the international impacts of our actions. Health risks are not entirely inescapable but current human intervention with the environment exacerbates the threat to health through many diseases and conditions.

Currently, the Zika virus outbreak in South America is a concern for pregnant women whose exposure may result in deformation of fetal brains. Although the outbreak emanates from South America, health risks are an international concern for the well-being and safety of humans.

The United Nations Environment Programme released an article, “From Asthma to Zika: UNEP Tackles Links Between Health and Environment,” in which Executive Director Achim Steiner stressed the impact of international action on the connections between health and the environment. In relation to the recent Zika outbreak, Steiner states, “The spread of, just as with Ebola, has sent a strong signal to the international community that there is a need for increased attention to the linkages between environment and health.”

How much are health risks attributed to environmental factors? According to the World Health Organization some statistics include:

  • 23% of all premature deaths
  • 36% of all child mortalities

Currently 1,000 child deaths occur every day due to water-borne diseases. With 2 billion of the world’s population living in water-stressed areas, the number of mortalities is expected to increase. If environmental diplomacy fails to establish an international prevention and action plan for development, then human health will continue to deteriorate as more diseases and viruses arise. A successful example of an effective international plan is the 1989 Montreal Protocol, which has depleted and removed nearly 100 substances from the ozone layer and expected to prevent 2 million cases of lung cancer by 2030.

We need to collectively consider and plan for the future of human health by examining all areas of exposure and risks, especially the environment. Such an international plan is in the works. A report about the environmental impacts on human health launches at the UNEA for the possible implementation of the environmental dimension for the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The implementation of an environmental dimension would integrate all primary concerns for development, including economic and social factors.

The environment and human health is an international concern, not a “third world” problem. The link between the environment and human health is too large to ignore with the billions of people exposed to water-borne illnesses and the high percentages of mortality. Targeting these links through international action plans of protecting the environment, with the development of social and economic factors, will create positive impacts on human health in the present and for the future.