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05/15/2013

Global health by the numbers

Did you know that life expectancy in China is now higher than most countries in Eastern Europe?

Or that 800 women die every day from complications relating to pregnancy or childbirth? Or that the government of Luxembourg spends more money on health per person than any other country in the world?

These statistics all come from the World Health Organization's recently-released 2013 statistical report on global health. Every year, the UN health agency tackles the gargantuan task of measuring the globe's health by combing through countless birth and death registries, hospital records, research reports and household surveys. For countries where data is poorly kept or missing altogether, the agency will also perform statistical modelling and adjustments.

According to the report, significant gains have been made — particularly with improving health in the poorest countries — but the world still has a long way to go if it hopes to achieve all eight Millenium Development Goals by 2015. The WHO's summary of their 168-page report outlines some key trends in this year's accounting of health on Earth:

Child health: Huge gains have been made in this area. In 1999, nearly 12 million children under five died; in 2011, that number was nearly halved, with fewer than 7 million deaths. Still, not enough progress has been made to meet the global target set by the Millenium Development Goals (a two-thirds reduction in 1990's levels of mortality) by 2015. A mere six conditions kill 75 per cent of all children under five: neonatal complications and premature birth, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, HIV/AIDs and measles.

Premature birth: Every year, 15 million babies are born too soon and one million will die as a result. Preterm birth is the leading cause of death for newborns and the second-biggest killer of children younger than five (number one is pneumonia). 

Malnutrition: This is what WHO describes as a "double burden" because malnutrition is driving both underweight and overweight issues in children — Africa, for instance, has the highest proportion of stunting but also saw a doubling of overweight children between 1990 and 2011. Overall, the number of children who are stunted is decreasing worldwide but there are still some countries where more than half of all children are stunted. When it comes to overweight kids, Europe has the highest proportion, with 12.5 per cent of children considered overweight — a trend that will certainly drive future increases in non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Diabetes: WHO says that nearly one in 10 people worldwide now have diabetes, with the highest prevalence rates in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and Americas (11 per cent of both men and women). The lowest rates are in Europe and the Western Pacific region, where 9 per cent of both sexes have diabetes.

HIV: The good news is that fewer people are dying from HIV — in 2011, an estimated 1.7 million died from AIDS-related causes, a 24 per cent decrease from 2005. But at the same time, more people are now living with the virus and an estimated 34 million people worldwide have HIV (the vast majority of them — 70 per cent — are in sub-Saharan Africa). The number of new infections is also dropping around the world but "not enough," according to WHO — in 2011, an estimated 2.5 million people were infected with HIV.

Access to water and basic sanitation: Since 1990, 1.9 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation facilities. But today, more than 2.5 billion people — or about one third of the world's population — still lack access to proper sanitation facilities. As for water, access to safe drinking supplies has largely improved in the last two decades but in some sub-Saharan countries, only one third of the poorest households have access to adequate water supplies.

Access to medication: Affordable medicines are still scarce in many low and middle-income countries and too many patients are forced to turn to the private sector, where prices could be 16 times higher. In certain countries, as little as 3 per cent of certain generic medicines are available in the public sector. 

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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